vihear khpos village, Kompong Speu province – For want of about $12 for a uniform and school supplies and the daily 1,500 riel fee for local high school teachers, Keo Chum Nou must sit at home rather than go to seventh grade class this year.
Asked about his future and how he feels when other students pass by on their way to Odong High School, where term started in September, the 16-year-old’s eyes filled with tears.
“I never had a dream about my future because I understood that my family did not have money to support me,” Keo Chum Nou said.
“Now I hang around the house, get water from the well,” he said.
Keo Chum Nou’s aunt, Chuon Sarang, 46, supports her four nephews in addition to three of her own children in Odong district. Her younger sister’s husband abandoned his family three years ago, she said, and her sister, Keo Chum Nou’s mother, committed suicide shortly after.
“We do not own any farmland so I earn some money by planting rice for other people in the wet season,” Chuon Sarang said.
“We do not have money for a bicycle, uniform, books and pencils for my nephew to continue studying, so he stays at home,” she said.
Along the village’s main roads, solidly constructed wooden houses with tiled roofs conceal much poorer families in thatch huts along the back streets.
Next door to Keo Chum Nou lives Chim Sok Eang, 19, who dropped out of school in grade three, six years ago.
“I went to work in the rice fields to help my family. I could not afford school,” he said.
The high dropout rate in Vihear Khpos village is replicated throughout Cambodia.
In 2005, only 48 percent of all students who started first grade finished grade six, according to government census data.
“That basically means that every other Cambodian child, even now in the year 2006, may not be able to read and write,” UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Gardner told Finance Minister Keat Chhon and other government officials at October’s quarterly government-donor meeting.
Gardner suggested that keeping students in school could be a top priority for the financial windfall expected from oil discovered off Cambodia’s shores in the Gulf of Thailand.
The National Petroleum Authority has estimated that Block A alone, which is being explored by US-based oil giant Chevron, may have 2 billion barrels of crude oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Chevron has not released its final estimate of oil reserves in Block A, but the discovery, if handled responsibly, could potentially add billions of dollars to the yearly government budget, according to a UN Development Program study.
“There are going to have to be some big decisions made and we are spotlighting the issue,” Gardner said in a recent interview. “Education is huge.”
At Odong High School, the 51-year-old principal Som Seng said that in his district, primary education quality has deteriorated in his 17 years of teaching.
“Compared to 1989, students are much weaker now in high school than before. The foundation is weak,” he said. “Our teachers make so little in salary that they need other jobs to survive and do not spend enough time teaching.”
Teachers make about $33 a month, he said.
In 2004, he added, Education Ministry officials instructed schools that 70 to 90 percent of students should graduate from primary school.
“To receive praise, teachers graduated many students,” he said. But, he added: “We got students who could not spell their own name.”
Once students arrive in high school, he said, they only receive three hours a day of lessons because of a teacher shortage.
The principal said the situation is so bad at one nearby high school that students are hardly being taught at all.
“Last year, the majority of ninth-graders there could not pass their exam. When I asked students why, they said that the math teacher and chemistry teacher only taught two or three lessons that entire year,” he said.
Som Seng acknowledged that fees for “private lessons” charged by teachers could be deterring students from staying on at high school.
“School completion, I think, is the biggest problem Cambodia is facing,” said UN Children’s Fund Resident Coordinator Rodney Hatfield.
He said the biggest achievement of the last decade in Cambodia has been “beating the bush” to find children and enroll them in first grade. In 2005, 91 percent of students had been enrolled to start primary school.
“But if you fail to offer a quality service, students begin to drift away,” he said.
Hatfield said it is common to find primary school students in their late teens in Cambodia because low teaching quality means students must repeat grades.
“This is a huge burden on the system. It means the classes are even larger and it is even harder for the teacher to give individual attention to students,” he said.
Hatfield also emphasized a need to create more preschools in order to get six-year-olds into education. According to the 2004 government census, only 13.6 percent of children aged three to five were enrolled in one of Cambodia’s 2,435 preschools.
Another possible use for Cambodia’s oil windfall, Hatfield said, would be improving teacher training on core subject knowledge.
“They do have refresher courses but again it is a matter of quality. There is so little money in the system,” he said.
“Teachers I have met in the provinces are dedicated. The problem is that they have families to support also, so they run a small business also. They need to be paid a decent wage,” Gardner said.
How Cambodia uses its oil resources will be decided by the government and National Assembly, according to Men Den, the National Petroleum Authority’s exploration director.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Monday that the government has not made plans yet about how to use the oil money because it has no clear idea about how much is actually available.
“It is what you would call building castles of sand,” he said. “We need to know how much there is first.”
But the government values human resource development and recognizes the needs for more schools and better teachers, he added.
Chea Se, undersecretary of state at the Education Ministry, said increasing teacher salaries should be the first use of any oil money directed toward education.
“The first thing we must do is increase the salary for teachers and then release more scholarships for students in primary school until university,” he said.
“When teachers’ salaries no longer encourage teachers to run motorbike taxis to earn more money, the culture of paying teachers will be eliminated.”
He also said constructing dormitories for girls, who cannot stay in pagodas with male classmates while they study away from home, would be key.
In Vihear Khpos, Chuon Sarang said she hopes that Cambodia’s oil reserves could be used to ensure a better life for the people and children of the village, and her own nephew Keo Chum Nou.
“If the government can use some of the oil money to make jobs for us or to give some support to poor students, I would appeal for that,” she said.
“I want all my children to continue in school and become highly educated people.”