Cambodia is a youthful country with a sad history.
One third of the country’s 15 million people (32.2%) is under the age of fifteen (July 2011 est.).
Given the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979 when two million Cambodians were killed, it is not surprising that less than 4% of the population is 65 or over. During the Khmer Rouge regime, educated people were targeted in the name of “agrarian socialism”. Thousands of teachers were amongst those executed after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.
So, the education system had to rebuild from scratch, along with the rest of the country’s infrastructure, and this could only start properly after the end of the civil war in 1990. Today, there are a lot of children – and still too few educated adults. This puts a lot of pressure on the country’s schools. On average, students stay in school for ten years, attending half a day of classes (four hours), either in the morning or in the afternoon, six days a week. Those who can afford it also attend evening “tutoring” classes. A number of parents told me that many teachers put all their energy into these tutoring classes; they said that teachers ignore the curriculum during their normal classes so that students have to pay the extra if they wish to pass the exams. If true, this is disappointing, but, given teachers’ pay scales and work loads, not terribly surprising.
I’ve visited Cambodia a number of times in the past to participate in an annual professional conference for the local teachers. This latest trip, however, was for me – I was there with my camera and with four gifted professional photographers: Karl Grobl, Marco Ryan, Gavin Gough and Matt Brandon. Still, I couldn’t resist visiting a local school, to see what was happening.
As you’d expect, the schoolyard in the morning is a lively place. Children arrive early: on foot, on oversized bicycles, ferried by their older siblings, or piled onto motorcycles or scooters driven by parents on their way to work. Children buy snack food from local vendors. They sweep the rooms and the yard, and unstack the desks in the classrooms. The boys play tag or marbles in the packed-dirt yard, while the girls skip or play a local version of Jacks on the veranda – all before the bell rings at eight o’clock.
(Open for optional audio bites)
It is always a joy to visit Cambodia. In general, the people are gentle mannered, softly spoken, and welcoming. The Cambodian teachers I’ve met at conferences have always been enthusiastic participants in the papers I have presented and the workshops I have run. They have demonstrated a real thirst for input and a willingness to learn and improve. The teachers I interacted with at this little local school were similar: overworked and underpaid, but enthusiastic, energetic, and trying to do the best for their pupils.
The social infrastructure of a country tells you a lot about its values. Good education, like adequate health care, is, in my opinion, the cornerstone of social justice in a community. Education (which may or may not be the result of good schools) is important to a population’s future, and even more critical in developing countries where the pace of change means that children will have to make choices about how to merge traditional values with international possibilities.
Although international aid accounted for about half the national budget in 2010, Cambodia spends only about two percent of its GDP on education. Schooling is free to students; perhaps the government thinks it is free to them also.
Unfortunately, you often get what you pay for.
The teachers and children in these schools deserve better.
“More than 50% of the population [of Cambodia] is less than 25 years old. The population lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure.”