Just weeks after the country’s only independent teachers’ association staged a strike for higher wages, Phnom Penh’s education chief told teachers this week that they must stop taking bribes to comply with the government’s promised reform agenda.
Speaking to about 500 educators, mainly school directors, from Phnom Penh on Wednesday, Chea Cheat, director of the Phnom Penh municipal department of education, said that the widespread practice of demanding bribes from students would no longer be tolerated.
“Exploiting the children is a problem. If there are any complaints against the individual [teacher], they must be held responsible,” Mr. Cheat told the educators, gathered for a two-day annual conference at City Hall.
“Please strengthen the law enforcement…starting from eradicating the coercion of students [to pay money to teachers],” he said.
Under the Constitution, schooling in all primary and secondary schools is to be free of charge.
However, in practice, the government has turned a blind eye to public school teachers taking bribes from students, in exchange for pass grades and to supplement critically low salaries, which range from $80 to $120 a month.
Earlier this month, the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA), headed by Rong Chhun, attempted to stage a nationwide strike for a base monthly salary of $250, which he said would improve teachers’ livelihoods and cut down on corruption.
Mr. Cheat thanked teachers who refrained from taking part in the strike, noting that the government has since raised the monthly minimum wage for teachers by $20 in primary schools and $10 in high schools.
“[Strikes] are a dead end. They are dangerous to the society, so please don’t play around with them,” Mr. Cheat said. “Leave this work to the government to find a solution.”
In his first speech to his newly formed Cabinet in September, Prime Minister Hun Sen told government leaders to clean themselves of corruption by metaphorically scrubbing away disease. He also said that citizen forums would be organized to allow for public scrutiny of government officials.
Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong, speaking during the first day of the conference on Tuesday, told school directors to start organizing forums at their schools, to be held next month, for parents to air their complaints about the quality, and cost, of the education being provided to their children.
Dy Tepkossal, director of the Samdech Chea Sim-Chamroeunrath high school in Russei Keo district, said during a tea break at the conference that he has strictly enforced a no-extortion policy in his school for years.
The problem with the successful policy, he said, is that no one wants to work for him now.
“Most teachers among the schools in central Phnom Penh don’t want to teach at my school because I am very strict about [preventing the extortion of money from students],” he said.
Mr. Cheat’s appeal to teachers this week echoes previous, futile attempts by the government to cut down on graft in the classroom.
Article 31 of the Law on Education, passed by the National Assembly in 2007, states that “every citizen has the right to access a quality education for free at least nine years in public schools.”
To encourage the enforcement of the law, Mr. Hun Sen in 2008 signed a sub-decree explicitly precluding teachers from demanding money from their students.
“Teachers shall not raise money or collect unofficial fees or make businesses in the classroom,” says Article 13 of the teacher professionalism code. “The teacher has the obligation to teach without putting pressure to gain benefits from the learner,” according to Article 17.
Mr. Chhun of CITA said Thursday that any effort by the government to change the behavior of teachers must be done in tandem with measures to significantly improve their living conditions, as teachers can make between $7 and $15 a day through informal fees taken from students.
“The teachers sell cake and paper in the classroom because they don’t have enough to eat,” Mr. Chhun said. “I think it will be impossible to patch this hole in their income without giving them a higher salary.”
Oum Lavin, a father of two in Russei Keo district whose house shares a fence with Boeng Chhouk primary school, said that his 9-year-old son is expected to pay 700 riel, or about $0.18, per day to attend school, while his 13-year-old daughter routinely pays about 3,000 riel, or about $0.75, for photocopied teachers’ notes at Russei Keo secondary school.
Mr. Lavin predicted that the government’s latest effort to stamp out corruption in the classroom will be ineffective.
“I firmly believe that it will not work at all because the salary of teachers is very small,” he said.
“Without raising their salaries, corruption in schools will continue.”
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