Education under the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s new order in the classroom.

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Pol Pot traded in his comfortable French education for a radical repudiation of all critical thinking. He wasn’t against literacy – but he demanded a certain type.

I think in a year of blogs about Savong’s School in Cambodia I’ve referred to the Pol Pot years only sparingly. I refer only cautiously to those years because we are at risk of focusing on the Khmer Rouge as if this was the single shaper of today’s Cambodia. Just as surely today’s culture has been influenced by more than 1000 years of history, and by the French Colonial rule, and by the years immediately after Pol Pot when Cambodia lay adrift, deliberately rejected by the western world, during years of crippling poverty.

But today I thought I’d reflect on education during the Pol Pot years in order to fill a gap in my own understanding. One of the most destructive aspects of the Khmer Rouge, in their effort to disassemble Cambodia, was to attack three pillars of their society: religion, family and education. Sources reveal how they implemented many illogical laws to terrorise the population. You could be arrested for averting your eyes to the left rather than right. If you wore glasses, a sure sign of being a member of the bourgeois intelligentsia, you could also expect to be arrested and executed. Teachers were routinely rounded up, often in front of their students who later reported hearing rifle shots in nearby fields. Their beloved teachers never returned.

For teaching life before 1975 Mitty Steele’s excellent and deeply personal essay is an excellent place to start as she retraces her own father’s history.

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In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia Paperback by Frank Stewart (Editor), Sharon May. A compelling account of the survival of literature in Cambodia during and after the Pol Pot years.

In the book above, In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia the contributing writers provide not only tastes of modern essays and poetry, but also the recollections from those who recount the elimination of the educated “elite” during the time of Pol Pot. Many writers survived by feigning illiteracy. Even so, by some estimates fewer than 60 academics are said to have avoided execution or death through starvation. Sixty.

What is important to understand is that the Khmer Rouge did not wish to destroy literacy: but they wanted their kind of literacy. By that, say authors George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov in their study: Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge (written as part of the The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University,) the Khmer Rouge wanted an education system that was strong on unquestioning literacy: the blind acceptance of propaganda without critical doubt. For this reason there were people classed as “correctly literate” (for example peasants who could scarcely read – and who accepted what they read,) and those that were “incorrectly literate.”) This latter class were seen as a threat to the revolution and the emergence of the new Kampuchea. So they started eliminating those with a traditional French-style education (most schools in Cambodia still reflect the educational template of the French,) and those who spoke foreign languages such as French. (Today some of the older generation are still fluent in French – though they would have hidden this in the late 1970s.)

A quoted goal from the Grand Plan, put together in 1976 by Pol Pot and eight other leaders stated:

Continue the struggle to abolish, uproot, and disperse the cultural, literary, and artistic remnants of the imperialists, colonialists, and all of the other oppressor classes. This will be implemented strongly, deeply and continuously one after the other from 1977 onwards.

The educational policy of the Khmer Rouge was also very strong on “technical skills” namely the skills required to grow rice, to fish, to farm, as well as to share simple medical knowledge. The goals were not about personal advancement but, rather, the advancement of the collective. The new school system was designed to “teach” not only through classroom activities but through physical labour.  As the plan said:

Daily Education Methods.  Half study, half work for material production

The Yale authors research shows how Individualism was seen as a threat to the Party’s ideology. In the same section of the document that calls for dividing the day between study and work, they found this statement:

“In our educational system there are no examinations and no certificates; it is a system of learning through the collective and in the concrete movement of the socialist revolution and the building of socialism in the specific contexts, especially the co-operatives, factories, and military units.”

The general school syllabus – at least that proposed for 1977 – included:

  • reading and writing
  • arithmetic
  • geography (importantly that of the nation)
  • history of the revolutionary struggle of the people, the revolutionary struggle for the nation, the revolutionary struggle for democracy, the revolutionary struggle for socialist revolution, and the struggle to build socialism.
  • natural sciences, physics, chemistry (as base)
  • the Party’s politics, consciousness, and organisation

That was the stated goal anyhow. In reality the school system was collapsing and the much vaunted revolution ended up an economic disaster. Grand plans, modeled on Chinese efforts under Mao and dubbed The Super Leap Forward failed miserably. The lofty objectives for rice production per hectare and for a bounteous agricultural  production to be shared by all were never even approached. Very soon the nation was cast into famine conditions and the dream to build a new school system never advanced past the opening of a handful of model schools, if that.

What I find amazing is how, through all this, the DNA of the educational system even survived. The collective memory of the education system, as it existed prior to Pol Pot remained loosely intact due I think to three things. One was the capacity of educated people to feign illiteracy and to simply survive by staying quiet and compliant. Next was the escape of Cambodians, mostly to Thailand before locating – mostly to France and the USA – in the aftermath of Pol Pot. Within the Paris and Long Beach communities existed survivors who later helped resurrect the fragments of the education system.  And finally the re-emergence of an education system came from the people themselves – people who had been through school as children. People who knew the value of what they’d lost.

I don’t think of the Pol Pot years without ultimately thinking of the courage of those who faced the terror. Today’s education system in Cambodia is developing again. We now have a cohort of teachers who have had teacher training. There are Khmer text books and universities. I think of today’s system as not only preserving the DNA from earlier times, but also being a system fueled by a deeper thirst for education, and a system laced with resilience and courage.

For more history of Cambodia.

For more facts and figures about present day Education in Cambodia

Ramy and Me.

Ramy and Me.

Ramy is one of the students at the Savong Student Center in Siem Reap. Sponsored by the USA-based Savong Foundation the center provides accommodation for older students who come from the countryside – some of whom used to live at the SOC in Bakong. The student center provides a transition zone for these young guys – a flatting situation where they look after themselves, but also the support they need to study – either through completion of High School, or university.

Cambodia’s Literacy Rate

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School prize giving – Cambodia. A new generation and a higher degree of adult literacy.

The measurement of literacy rates is extremely problematic in poorer nations so it doesn’t surprise me that the UNESCO figures have wandered around – in fact they went down somewhat from 2008 to 2009 – a blip I’d put down to methodology rather than some demographic or education system ‘event.’

The figures show a largely upward trend over the previous decade and given the fast population growth the literacy rate, if you measure it in sheer numbers represents a gain of close to 700,000 adults 15+ between 1998 and 2008. This still leaves at least half a million adults deemed illiterate.

In world terms this is still not a great figure. UNESCO ranks Cambodia and 108th in the world, rubbing shoulders with Uganda, the Solomon Islands, Guatemala and Iraq.

The Cambodian government, which defines literacy as:

A person is literate who can, with understanding in both reading and writing, make a short simple statement on his/her everyday life.

has set goals for improving the literacy rates and certainly the school system is where it starts. In Cambodia, according to 2008 Census figures 88% of adults 15-24 are literate, (89% of males, 86% of females) whereas the figure drops with each age group and the gap between females and males gets wider: (48% literacy amongst 65+ with  74% of males and 31% of females.)

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The impact of school fees on poor families in Cambodia.

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Free education? In Cambodia it is supposed to be free – but widespread charging of ‘fees’ is hurting attendance of poor rural children. Many call it corruption.

 

A key philosophy of Savong is that all schooling provided by his organisation should be free of charge. This is to ensure that the poorest families can still gain a good education for the children. In fact the question of school fees is a vexed one in Cambodia. In short the education system is supposed to be free, but the State system is under-resourced and the practice of charging students fees for attendance is practically universal. Some critics term this fee as an out and out bribe; while others see the fees as simply a realistic way for schools to meet their basic running costs. Without this levy schools would simply have to close.

This blog has posted recent figures which demonstrate that the Cambodian government devotes a very skinny slice of its annual spend towards education, and the Ministry is on record as saying it relies on the NGO and private sector to help Cambodia reach its education goals. Between the ‘free education’ rhetoric the Government is really saying that others will have to pay for schooling – don’t rely on the Government. So while the Ministry said in 2008, following international criticism, that charging of informal levies was illegal – the practice is found in every region of Cambodia and primary as well as secondary school level.

How much do these informal fees cost? A 2007 report by the Cambodian NGO Education Partnership (NEP) suggested that education costs for each child averaged $108 annually, or 9 percent of the average annual income of each family. Clearly in a nation where having four or five children is very common, the education costs become very significant.

The NEP study found that these fees were the main reason given for children not attending school, and that a quarter of parents were unaware that their children had a right to free education.

The problem is particularly challenging for poor families, and a study (conducted by Mark Bray for the World Bank in 2001,) looked at the same issues in neighbouring nations and found that the poorest 20% devoted a much greater slice of the annual income to education costs.

Thus in Thailand the cost to the average family of their children’s education was 16% of household income, while this represented 47% of the household income of the poorest quintile. In Vietnam education cost the average family 12% of their annual household income, while education costs represented 22% of the annual income of the poorest quintile.

Where do these informal fees go? Do they go toward running costs or do they go into the pockets of poorly paid state school teachers?

Judging by Government policy, and the recent declaration that secondary school teachers would receive a pay rise, it appears that the Government is carrying out a policy it first announced three years earlier – to stamp out corruption (or informal fees) by raising teacher salaries.  In other words it appears the Government accepts that most of these fees have indeed been going into the pockets of teachers.

But there’s a fine line between teaching staff doing their best but levying students in order to keep teaching on an otherwise low salary (justifiable fees?) versus out and out corruption where teachers accept bribes in order to fatten their income in exchange for tweaking exam results for those willing to pay over some cash. (Unjustified corruption.)

In a 2005 study that examined how corruption touches everyday life ( Nissen, C. (2005) Living under the Rule of Corruption: An Analysis of Everyday Forms of Corrupt Practices in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Centre for Social Development0 the author found almost a third of families expected to have to basically pay off teachers, head masters, and ministry staff for good scores in examinations, good records in attendance, and school admissions and transfers.

The public resent this and Nissen’s report highlights how the public actually feels the most unease about their teachers being a part of the corruption culture.

So long as the Ministry under-supports the education sector, thereby making fees a practical necessity, two bad outcomes will occur.

  1. The poor will lose their right to a good free education.
  2. The door is open for further more serious corruption.

This is one of the serious issues facing the education sector in Cambodia.

Where does Cambodia rank in terms of higher education?

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Measurements of education are difficult because one nation’s standards may be different from those of other nations, and the population  structure may be quite different also. However one metric applied by the UN is “enrollment in tertiary education” and this takes the percentage of people of tertiary education age (18 – 24 say) who are actually enrolled in tertiary education.

By these standards Cambodia ranks 116th out of 148 nations measured by UNESCO (2011) and reported by the World Economic Forum – a few positions lower than neighbouring Laos.

Earlier UNESCO figures (2005) estimated that around 2.8% of tertiary aged Cambodians are enrolled in tertiary education. (In the USA the figure is 72%.)

This situation is changing, and I think quite rapidly since 2005, but Cambodia has some catching up to do. When asked to evaluate the problems hindering economic development, the World Economic Forum respondents rated the “inadequately educated workforce” as the third greatest problem after corruption and inefficient Government bureaucracy.

A deeper problem is the urban-rural split, with university being more accessible for comparatively rich urban families, and out of reach for the rural poor. This issue has the potential to create a harsh class division in Cambodia, on top of the nation’s other social challenges. It is a key reason why at Savong’s School we established a full scholarship for the top students – and this provides for university enrollment (over a 4 year degree) as well as transport, a laptop and a living allowance over the 4 years.

More about the university scholarship – click here.

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.