In his first year as education minister, Hang Chuon Naron quickly overhauled the national high school completion exam, enforcing strict regulations to eliminate rampant bribery and cheating, and cutting the pass rate in half to 41 percent.
As his third year as minister comes to a close and an expected 93,752 students prepare today to sit the exam—lauded as his greatest reform accomplishment—Mr. Chuon Naron holds that the exam has been a small piece of a broad effort to resurrect a defunct education system.
“For some time, we have heard about this exam reform, but this is like the tip of the iceberg,” he said during an interview at his office earlier this month. “There are many things we have done.”
“I think the grade 12 exam gives an incentive and maybe a trigger for the students to work harder and the teachers to also improve their capacity,” he added. “I think it’s like a sequence.”
Spurred on by the meager results of the 2014 exam, Mr. Chuon Naron said the ministry identified “pillars of reform” to improve education from preschool to university.
Curriculum and textbooks needed to be revamped to create continuity from one grade to the next, he said. Teacher pay and training required a boost, with many teachers never having completed primary school. Oversight of school administrators needed to be improved along with assessments of their students.
The ministry has worked to appoint officials based on merit, rather than by who “they’re loyal to,” he said. By doing so, “some projects that failed before have become at the core” of the ministry’s work.
“The first year was tough, because people were not sure if they should do it,” the minister said of initial efforts to mobilize educators to make fundamental changes to the country’s school system. “There was resistance.”
By honing in on the economic benefit of a better-educated population—which could gain the country an estimated $68 million in income, according to Unesco—education became “at the core” of the government agenda in the last three years, he said. This led to the 28 percent increase in state education spending from 2015 to nearly $500 million this year, accounting for about 12 percent of the total government budget.
In March, Mr. Chuon Naron was ranked as the most effective minister in Cambodia in a Facebook survey conducted by the National Advisory Team Organization in Cambodia. Chin Chanveasna, director of the NGO Education Partnership (NEP), said the minister’s leadership was unprecedented.
“These kinds of reforms had been raised by the previous ministers: ‘Oh, we are doing reforms.’ ‘We are doing this.’ ‘The exam will be like this,’” he recalled previous education ministers saying, to no avail, causing teachers, officials and others working in education to doubt new reform pledges.
Last year’s continued enforcement of strict national exams, in which 56 percent of participants passed, making them eligible for university, gave Mr. Chuon Naron credibility, Mr. Chanveasna said. Additionally, measures to revamp curriculums so that classroom learning flows from one grade to the next—as well as an initiative that aims to see 70 percent of primary school teachers hold a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2020—would address fundamental problems from preschool up, he said.
“He really has a vision of where he wants to go,” Mr. Chanveasna said. “I believe that if he’s still in his position for many years, then the quality of education will be increased,” he added, conceding that some ambitious time frames were unlikely to be met.
But amid such developments, doubts of deep-rooted change persist. Despite increases to the budget for schools, Cambodia still lags behind other Asean countries in the proportion of spending on education, Miguel Chanco, lead regional analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an email. The country’s primary schools maintain the highest ratios of students to teachers in the region at 45 to 1, and many schools lack basic facilities like drinking water and bathrooms, he said.
According to Unesco, 257,000 primary and lower-secondary aged children were not in attendance in 2014—an issue that has been linked to a lack of facilities and human resources in schools.
“I think that it is too soon to say whether the minister’s reform efforts have and are leading to a much stronger education sector,” Mr. Chanco said.
“The education ministry can have the most admirable goals and well-designed policies, but these will be for naught if it isn’t given enough funds to begin with.”
Ouk Chhayavy, acting president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said the poor use of funds within the Education Ministry remained a major problem, taking particular issue with $4 million set aside for the national exam.
“He just helps to spend all the money,” she said of Mr. Chuon Naron, while in provincial schools, “there is still a lack of classroom facilities and teachers, so students are forced to stop studying.”
According to Mr. Chanveasna of NEP, the lack of teachers in some schools can be attributed to not having a proper system to deploy teachers, resulting in some being overstaffed while other—often rural—schools can’t meet the needs of their students.
And many qualified educators are already being excluded from advancing within the system for political reasons, according to opposition lawmaker Long Botta, who was education secretary for the Lon Nol regime and heads the CNRP’s education committee.
“If you have not worked for the CPP, there is no way to be promoted,” he said. “The competent—the right people who have an independent mind—they have never been accepted or promoted to lead the high schools or colleges.”
In lieu of academics, he said, the minister’s reforms have spotlighted a handful of the country’s top high schools to “make a show for the population and for foreign countries that they [are] working hard to improve the standards,” while most schools have remained relatively unchanged.
And while Mr. Chuon Naron is often put forward as the face of reform within the ruling party, his ministry has not risen above the political fray, or been without scandal and unfulfilled promise.
Despite a ban on political expression on school grounds, Prime Minister Hun Sen regularly lashes out against the opposition during graduation ceremonies, and Mr. Chuon Naron has himself attacked the CNRP in ministry statements.
The ministry came under fire for keeping a high-ranking official on its payroll after he was arrested for sexually assaulting his interpreter during a visit to South Korea in May, with the minister defending the decision by saying that the crime was not “very serious.”
After tasking the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia with preparing an assessment to standardize university quality, the minister said universities would face no repercussions for falling short of basic standards, but instead would remain open as low-cost options.
But according to Mr. Chuon Naron, it’s only a matter of time before new reforms start to revitalize an ailing education system.
“People think that I’m new, yes. But I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “People see only the high school exam, but we work on all the things…[to] produce more quality people for the country.”
“But it will take some time for all of that reform to be really felt by everybody.”
(Additional reporting by Hang Sokunthea)
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Education Ministry was working on an initiative that would see all teachers hold a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2020.