Cambodian Schools

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2004 - Cambodia's school system resembles many other arms of the country's government, where civil servants receive very low pay and often resort to bribes to make ends meet.

And on a wider scale, the country also suffers from a lack of trained teachers and adequate school facilities. Students face an uphill battle in a country that is still rebuilding after widespread devastation by the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.

One man who lives in Phnom Penh says his three children have to make payments to their teachers every day. "During testing time it is even worse," Leang Thong says. "The students pay almost three dollars to the teachers. But I cannot say whether it is fair or not. Because the teachers, they need the money to live."

In the Phnom Penh school that Leang Thong's children attend, one teacher, Phan Sophany, agrees and says she has little choice but to take bribes. "If we don't do that, we cannot teach them," she says. "They could not gain knowledge. All the expenses to buy the markers, the papers, all the supplies -- we have to buy ourselves. We teachers know we're setting a bad example for the students. I appeal to the government to make this right."

Officials with Cambodia's Ministry of Education admit that bribe-taking is common. They say they are working to stop it by implementing a system of cash incentives for teachers. But Ministry official Im Sethy said he doubts the cash-strapped government will be able to provide the money.

Im Sethy was one of 10 people left in the ministry when the Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979. He says many of the troubles with Cambodia's education system -- namely underpaid, under-trained teachers and a lack of materials -- stem back to those years, when children were forced to study outside.

"We used the shadow of the trees, and sometimes when I accompanied some foreigners to visit these places, I could not stop my tears. Because you know, to see the people to sit down in the shadow and move all the time because of the sun, I could not stop my tears." He says that even now, hundreds of thousands of students cannot study because of a lack of school buildings.

Doug Schlemmer, an American who works to secure private donations from the US and Japan to build rural schools, agrees. "A typical school is made of old dilapidated wood often with large gaps in the roofs," he said. "Many have no walls at all and are open to the environment.

Children very often do not have chairs or desks; they sit on the ground. Rooms are very overcrowded. A small room often can hold 50-80 students for one teacher. No pencils or books or materials for the students to write on. It's a really daunting task for both the children and the teacher to get anything out of it.

When asked what his organization is doing about the problem, Schlemmer said: "We are scheduled to build 200 schools in the rural areas of Cambodia by the next year. There's so many areas to improve in this field, that at this point nothing can make the situation worse, we're just trying to make it better." In a system where used ammunition shells still serve as school bells, most agree that making it better will take some time.

* * * * *