For nearly 40 years, primary school education in Cambodia has been a part-time affair at best, taking up about four hours each day. But the system is not working, according to the Education Ministry, which is starting a pilot program today giving a small group of students a chance to study for an entire day.
“We think about the curriculum: Is the time that is provided to the students enough or not enough? If we have the results until now, the learning outcome is not good,” said Chan Sophea, director of the Education Ministry’s primary school department.
Cambodia maintains some of the lowest regional requirements for instructional hours among primary school students—684 to 760 hours annually, compared to the recommended 850 to 1,000, according to the NGO Education Partnership (NEP).
“We want to improve. We cannot wait,” Mr. Sophea said.
In Siem Reap province’s rural Angkor Thom district, three primary schools will serve as guinea pigs in a three-year pilot program extending courses through the afternoon, he said. Rather than attending from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., students at Trot Pang Svay, Don Ov and Kok Krel primary schools will take courses from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a two hour lunch break—meal included.
“If it has a good learning outcome, the government says ‘OK, we can expand to another place.’ OK, we will,’” Mr. Sophea said, adding that the full-day system may one day be implemented nationwide.
The pilot program is launching in response to research by the NEP showing that insufficient school hours among the age group resulted in students falling behind early in their academic life, according to the organization’s director, Chin Chanveasna.
“Primary—this is the foundation of learning,” he said. “Usually, we see that for the whole year, the teacher cannot complete the curriculum…. The students cannot catch up because they have not learned from the last grade.”
“Mostly, if they cannot follow primary, they end up dropping out,” he added.
According to Unesco, the number of primary school-aged children not attending classes has increased in recent years, more than doubling from 47,000 in 2012 to 97,000 in 2014—about 5 percent of the age group.
The aim of the program is to strengthen the basic education of students so they can enter lower- and upper-secondary school, which face dropout rates of more than 20 percent, with more confidence, Mr. Chanveasna said.
Trot Pang Svay primary school director Chhonh Serey said he was excited by the change.
“This is a very good program for young students,” he said. “Students will have a lot of time to study. They will gain a lot of knowledge, they will understand a lot and they will change their mindsets.”
Mr. Serey said it would also reduce the time that children spend unsupervised, ensuring their safety and preventing them from getting into trouble.
Song Sou, the director of Kok Krel primary school, said she was concerned that parents would be reluctant to send their children to school for longer.
“I worry that the students’ parents will complain that their children are studying during both sessions, because some families ask their children to help with housework or earning money,” she said.
Sharing similar concerns, and facing the financial reality of doubling the time students spend in school, the Education Ministry decided to pilot the full school day, rather than implement nationwide reforms.
Mr. Sophea, the department director, said the cost of the pilot program alone would use about $50,000 each year from the ministry’s annual budget to increase the “basic salary” of teachers at the three schools by about $110 per month.
If rolled out nationwide, the program would give the country’s future workforce “a better basis for being able to be trained,” said Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank’s regional integration office.
“There is a lot of focus being placed on vocational and technological education post secondary school, but unless there is a solid basis or foundation in primary and secondary education, everything else becomes almost irrelevant,” he said. “So strengthening primary education is a very important priority for the government.”
But the ministry was unlikely to be able to reimplement the full-day system with its current $685 million annual budget, said Long Botta, who was education secretary under Lon Nol in the 1970s and now heads the CNRP’s education committee.
“It’s a very good idea,” he said. “But I believe the budget for national education could not allow to extend larger scale this kind of system because they do not have enough money. You have to give a lot of money to all the teachers.”