Faced with an impoverished education system in which students pay bribes for their grades —often at the request of poorly paid teachers—the Ministry of Education has a big job ahead as it seeks to improve the nation’s schools.
Speaking to reporters before opening a two-day conference on the future of education in Cambodia, Minister of Education Tol Lah said his vision for the nation’s students includes free basic education, food programs and scholarships for poor children and girls, who are often are overlooked as struggling families choose whom they will pay to send to class.
“My ministry has asked the government to provide some money to schools so poor students will be able to attend for free, at least up until grade nine—this is a basic education that everyone deserves,” he said.
A pledge like that will require massive reforms—and money.
The conference ends today as ministry officials and governors from each of Cambodia’s 24 provinces are to agree on a five-year school-reform plan. Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to close the conference.
Tol Lah, the man who steers the government’s education programs, said his concerns for poor children and especially girls, who tend to drop out of school before boys, will guide some of his planning for the next five years.
Tol Lah said by offering incentives such as food programs and financial scholarships, schools may draw and keep more at-risk students.
But even this simple step will require the help of international donors, he said, since the government’s education program lacks the money needed to provide free education.
At least some help is available, Tol Lah said.
“We have met with the World Food Program and the details have not been specified yet but we know that some amount of rice will be offered to students,” Tol Lah said.
Scholarships will be offered to those who are at particular risk of dropping out, especially girls, who tend to stay in school only one or two years, Tol Lah said.
“Fifty three per cent of the population is female. We are losing a lot of potential so we need to get out and talk to families to encourage girls to create favorable conditions for themselves,” he said.
Tol Lah said another main objective of the reform program is relocating teachers from Phnom Penh to rural areas of the country where there is a shortage of trained and qualified staff.
Teachers will be encouraged to relocate with incentives such as salary increases, coverage of travel costs and family visits, as well as preferential treatment when it comes to relocating back to Phnom Penh, he said.
“Right now, some teachers in remote areas have to teach two different grades at the same time,” Tol Lah said.
And there’s an even more pressing problem with education in rural areas.
Some villages do not even have schools, said Secretary of State Pok Than, speaking at Wednesday’s conference. In some circumstances there is only one school to serve three or four villages. Part of the reform plan includes building dorms near village schools for both teachers and students who live far away.
Next year a pilot project will begin in Prey Veng, Battambang, Kompong Thom, Kampot, Kratie provinces and Kep town with the hope of offering basic education to children in remote areas.
The project, which will be funded by the international community, will give money directly to the provinces to build their own schools. The ministry will oversee the projects but the planning and building will be the responsibility of the provinces.
But even once in school, Tol Lah concedes that both students and teachers face further obstacles in education. Students and teachers are often victims of bribery—students offering teachers money for better grades and teachers demanding money from students just for basic lessons.
“Cambodia is a country that suffers from cultural bankruptcy,” Tol Lah said. “The Ministry of Education is working hard to teach human rights and morals…a culture of peace has to be introduced.”
Teachers salaries, which can be as low as $10 a month, are expected to increase according to performance under the reform program, and the ministry hopes this will help to curb the problem of bribery.
The Ministry of Education’s director of planning, Sam Sereyrath, said the salaries of school staff, including teachers and administrators, cost the government $34 million in 2001. The government plans to spend $70 million on salaries by 2005, he said, effectively doubling the teacher’s pay.
Tol Lah added that he doesn’t think violence towards teachers is a major cause for concern. He believes the murder of a teacher a few weeks ago was “an isolated incident, and not typical of Cambodia.”
“In a basket of fruit, there can always be one or two rotten pieces,” he said.
Secretary of State Im Sothy, speaking at the conference Wednesday, expressed the urgency of the need for educational reform in Cambodia. He said that during the floods last year around 1,000 school buildings were damaged, leaving 48 percent of the primary schools with only two or three classrooms and delaying the return of many students to school.
“Now is not the time to walk,” he said. “We need to run.”