While pledging to combat widespread corruption in the school system, Phnom Penh’s top education official acknowledged not only is graft part of the system’s culture, but his office has encouraged teachers to put caps on bribes they take.
“We just advised [teachers] not to charge higher than 200 riel ($0.05),” said Um Hoeung, chief of Phnom Penh’s education department. The department took the step because corruption in the school system “has become traditional [and] we can’t stop it.”
Teachers have complained of widespread bribery and kickbacks in the school system, with students in some schools paying fixed rates to change classes or pass exams.
Instead of fighting the bribes, one primary school teacher, who asked not to be identified, said school administrators ask for a percentage. The teacher, who works in a Phnom Penh elementary school, said administrators demand $0.25 a day.
Although school supervisors suggested teachers not take more than $0.05 a day from a student, the teacher said he takes up to $0.10 per student.
Part of the problem, the teacher added, is the low salaries paid to educators.
“I feel very much ashamed when I hear curses from students’ parents…but I can’t live with my $25 [a month] salary,” he said.
Nonetheless, the corrupt environment has put enormous pressure on honest educators, one high school physics teacher said.
“How can I deal with this situation? If I take money from [students], it destroys [my] prestige. If I don’t, they will harm me or they will scoff at me, after they bribe the school’s leaders,” the physics teacher said.
Students are brazen about the graft, the high school teacher said, and it leads to “anarchy” in the classroom.
The teacher recounted a situation in his classroom earlier this year in which two unruly students were to be dismissed.
“They asked me, ‘Who is the higher [rank]—the school director or you?’” the physics teacher said.
The physics teacher said only use a third of the lesson plan can be used, thus denying other students an education, because of chronic absenteeism, constant classroom changes—often made by boys in search of the prettiest girls—and the disruptive behavior of students, all of which are protected by bribed school officials.
For his part, Um Hoeung has promised to send investigators into the troubled schools and implement reforms, but he cautioned the public that no reforms can get off the ground while teachers continue to threaten to strike in February.
“We can’t [overhaul the system] at this moment because we are trying to [convince] teachers not to go on strike,” Um Hoeung said.