My past post on high schools in Phnom Penh has attracted some interest. Below is an op-ed by Estelle Shumann on the subject of education in Cambodia. I think it is a well-researched article, although it leaves out some significant aspects. The quality of education varies widely; rural areas just get the basic minimum. Driving through the countryside you will see many school buildings sitting vacant. There are not enough qualified teachers. Also people make more money in other fields. This means that children have to travel farther to their schools.

More notably, however, it leaves out the money parents have to pay teachers. This is a consequence of the poor pay teachers receive. If parents don’t pay the money, usually 50 cents a day for primary, and up to $1 for secondary schools, again depending on the location, students won’t receive enough or no attention. This will leave poorer students behind and more well-off students making their grades regardless of their academic record. In other words, grades can still be bought.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting article. Estelle Shumann is a member of www.onlineschools.org.

While the rest of the world moves towards online schools and ubiquitous graduation, Cambodia is a country that is running to catch up. After a brutal dictatorship, Cambodia was left with little for an academic class. Under the Khmer Rouge, an agrarian social regime that demanded its people move from the cities to tend the fields, Cambodia had lost 21% of its population. But after decades of rebuilding, Phnom Penh is catching the world’s attention for its progress.

Earlier this month, the first ever United States-Cambodia education fair was opened to Cambodian students at the Diamond Island Exhibition Center in Phnom Penh. More than 20 American and Cambodian educational institutions were featured at the event, according to the United States embassy, which organized the event along with Ruwan Hulugalle & Company and Education USA. The two-day event also featured panel discussions on topics like student life, test preparation and scholarships.

The fact that Cambodia even has a higher education system robust enough to take part in the event is a sign of how far the country’s school system has come since the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge era. Cambodia today has 97 universities, according to statistics from the nation’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. That’s up from six in 1980, and it indicates even more dramatic changes at the primary and secondary levels.

Cambodia’s modern school system grew out of the colonial model used by the French, with two cycles of primary school followed by two of secondary school. Today, Cambodia uses primary schools to cover the first six grades and divides secondary school between colleges, which teach grades seven through nine, and lycées that run through grade twelve. Last year, although Cambodia included more than 6,000 primary schools, only 1,573 schools were teaching grades seven through nine and 407 schools covered tenth through twelfth grade.

As a result, while 2.1 million Cambodian students are enrolled in primary school, only 334,734 were recorded in upper secondary education. Only 51% of students in Cambodia’s urban areas, and 33% of rural students, complete grade nine. This reflects the history of Cambodia’s education system, which emphasized primary school almost exclusively until the 1980s. In the 1981-82 school year, for example, the entire country had 3,521 primary schools, 96 colleges and five lycées.

This leaves the country with very few skilled graduates, making it difficult to find qualified teachers as well. According to education ministry statistics, the majority of Cambodia’s preschool and primary school teachers have only a lower secondary education, and most provinces include some teaching staff with no pedagogical training at all. Cambodian students also have unenviable building conditions to deal with. More than one-fifth of Cambodia’s schools, in both rural and urban areas, lack good floors, and a large percentage of schools are without good roofs or walls.

In 2010, Cambodia spent about 2.6% of its gross domestic product on education, according to figures from UNESCO. Only 21 percent of those funds go to secondary education, however. This places Cambodia well below the average spending level for western countries, which typically direct 5-6% of GDP toward education.

Despite all these challenges, Cambodia’s school system has seen rapid improvement. UNESCO reports that 77% of adults and 87% of youth are literate, and Cambodia has come very close to achieving gender parity in both literacy and school completion rates. The Cambodian government is responding to the problem of poor buildings with a wave of construction, with more than twice as many new buildings being built in 2011 compared to old buildings being repaired. The number of students in secondary education has skyrocketed, from about 5,000 in 1980 to about 900,000 in 2010.

Two bright spots emerge in Cambodia’s education system: Its well-established primary schools, where enrollment rates are well ahead of the regional average, and the rapid pace of change, the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979. This month’s U.S.-Cambodia education fair was promoted as a sign of the progress Cambodia’s schools have made, from a system where few students would complete even secondary school to one where higher education planning is a part of the national vocabulary.

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