The Cambodian Primary School droupout rate – 39% don’t complete primary school

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Here’s another sad statistic that reflects on the underinvestment in education for young Cambodians. For every hundred who start primary school, 39 do not complete their studies at primary school according to the latest available figures. “Oh but we’re a poor country,” might be the argument of the government – but poorer than Myanmar or Laos? The fact is, Cambodia spends a smaller percentage of the annual government expenditure on education than does its neighboring nations.

The result: 4 in ten do not make it to middle or high school.

Reasons include:

  1. Insufficient provision of primary schools especially in remote regions.
  2. Distance and transport. Many children live too far away from school and do not have transport.
  3. Financial – the fact that state schools charge money to attend. This is extremely widespread, and penalises the poor.
  4. Children required to work on farms to help the family income.
  5. Sickness. Child health is still far from ideal in Cambodia.

During the 2013 election the Government announced a 20% lift in education budget (a move I’d rate as a shift from totally inadequate to merely inadequate,) but the Government has not released any plans or policies to indicate where the additional money will be spent.

The annual education spend works out to around $50 per child in Cambodia up to age 18.

For more education statistics click here.

In Cambodia a Primary Teacher to pupil ratio of 1 to 47

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One metric that helps illustrate how much attention a nation is giving to education is the teacher-to-student ratio. Recently South East Asia Globe magazine ran an article by Frédéric Janssens who had gathered the best available data on teacher ratios across SE Asia. This was for primary schools. Alas, Cambodian children fare not just worst, but worse by a wide margin even compared to near neighbours Myanmar and Laos.

This is a problem, and it is not helped by a shortage of primary teachers in part because they are paid very poorly. Many professional teachers have opted to teach in secondary schools instead. The problem is not just that primary schools get a skinnier slice of the education spend, but that the pie itself is woefully small even when expressed as a percentage of the Government’s overall spend.

While Singapore’s government invests almost one dollar in every four into education, the Cambodian government allocates just one dollar in every 8*, and that’s despite the burgeoning number of children in the school-age cohort.

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The figures date from 2010-2012.

For more on the subject of Cambodian primary teachers and their pay – click here.

Savong’s School plans to open Primary School classes in October 2014 and the plan is to limit classes to so students per teacher. For more about these plans click here.

For Cambodian education spending projections, 2014-2018, click here.

* These figures suggest 12.4% of Government spending. Comparative UNESCO figures suggest 13.5% of Cambodia’s GDP.

Book Review – Destination Cambodia

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Author Walter Mason avoids dwelling on the well-trodden graveyards of Cambodia’s recent history, and instead shares with readers the palpable feeling of what its like to live in bustling, chaotic and sometimes frustrating Phnom Penh.

Australian writer Walter Mason loves Asia, is an astute scholar of Buddhist culture and makes for an entertaining dinner partner in his book Destination Cambodia: regaling readers with funny experiences but also insights into Cambodian attitudes and social conventions. He is astute, for example picking up on the Cambodian tendency to view achievements in a Cambo-centric way (quick to point out that Muay Thai was really invented in Cambodia,) in the same way that my country, New Zealand, seems anxious to lead the world at this or that. Call it ‘small country syndrome.’

Walter is part romantic and part cynic; happy to follow his generous heart, but sometimes quite biting with his comments, especially when he meets rip-off artists, or when – as most westerners do – he gets utterly frustrated by everything happening in “Cambodia time” where nothing seems punctual and where plans can easily be derailed.

He is self-deprecating as a narrator – and two gags run through the easily-read 266 pages. One is his “gay-ness” which some locals don’t recognise (single – he’d make some woman a good catch,) and the other is his size: considered plump and therefore blessed by good fortune. Cambodians are pretty blunt, not in an unkind way, about such things. As I find in my travels – I’ve more than once been patted on my belly and asked: “expecting baby?”

Still, like good travel writers, the author learns to reflect on his frustrations and admits that he has been infected by pragmatic earthiness of Khmer people as well as by the “casual wonder” of Cambodian thinking where spiritual beliefs, for example the presence of ghosts, are taken at unquestioning face value.

The book is at its best when Mason stands back and reflects on the state of Cambodia and its people: it synthesizes the author’s observations and his well-read understanding of the history and culture. I could have done with a bit more of this. The decision to write this books as a series of scarcely related incidents and adventures makes for an entertaining read, but at the expense of developing the richer thematic arc.

That’s a minor quibble. The book provides the would-be traveller to Cambodia a feel for modern life. When I first travelled to the Kingdom the only books were those that dwelt on the Pol Pot years. As Walter Mason says, Cambodia grapples with two pasts: the glory of Angkor and the tragedy of Pol Pot. “The Cambodian people are balancing the memories of the two.”

For two more book reviews:

  1. Cambodia’s Curse
  2. A History of Cambodia