The government crackdown on school exam cheats

CAMBODIA PLUS BACK TO WORK MAY 09 097

A fishy pass rate in 2013 – virtually halved after a crackdown on Grade 12 cheating.

It is interesting to consider the extent – rife by any measure – of high school exam cheating in Cambodia. the figures are stark: 2013 the Grade 12 exams were wide open to cheating, and 83% passed. In 2014 following a crackdown on cheating, just 39% passed. Ouch!

How and why should cheating be so widespread in a land where there is a fairly strong religious moral code at work?

  • For one thing, there is a desperate profit motive – and a widespread form of cheating was always made possible by the willingness of some teachers to copy and sell answer sheets for the exams.
  • Second, as in countries like Italy, (or, dare I say, in New Zealand or the USA,) there is a distinction made between personal morality versus one’s stance towards a government which is largely distrusted. You wouldn’t cheat your family, but you might happily ‘beat the system.’
  • Third, the high-stakes for the grade 12 students. Passing those exams is like a gateway to a better future. Failure at this point has huge long-term repercussions. The small act of cheating today has had little downside, while it has potentially massive upsides: the risk is worth it.
  • Fourth – very poor exam supervision. In 2013 newspaper reports quoted students as saying they actively passed notes and answers around to their fellow students. There were an inadequate number of independent monitors, and of course some of the teachers who were doing the monitoring were the same teachers who had previously sold the answers.
  • Fifthly, nobody foresaw the ease with which social media could be employed to share the answers around the exam hall. With the ownership of smart phones being so high, it was easy for students to create Facebook pages dedicated to sharing answers among friends. Phones were allowed in the exam rooms.
  • Finally, and I don’t want to make this sound like an excuse, but the culture of Cambodians is very us oriented, rather than me oriented. In the classroom, students actively help each other. They are not out to succeed at the expense of their classmates. Exams are not a competition so much as a team exercise.

In 2014 the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport staged a well executed national crackdown on school exam cheats. They enacted a strategy designed to prevent teachers and examiners from publishing in advance the exam questions and answers. Given this was never going to be the whole answer, the Ministry also conducted body frisks on students entering the exam rooms. They confiscated cheat sheets and telephones. Lots of them! Finally, the authorities conducted much more rigorous supervision during the exams. Students who were used to whispering answers to friends remained quiet in 2014.

The crackdown in 2014 was a great step forward for a transparent and fair education system. Yes, many students learned that old-fashioned study and hard work are the most certain ways of graduating from grade 12. Ironically, the group who had in the short term had most to lose, were the tertiary institutions. Enrolments were down sharply for 2015, causing an unexpected cash flow problem for several universities.

See also: Exam result show dive in 2014.

See more education facts and figures.

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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.

Child Labour in Cambodia – a massive 400,000 strong problem

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More than 400,000 Children of school age are estimated to be in the workforce in Cambodia – child labourers who are not getting an education and who (in one out of 10 cases) are engaged in physically dangerous work.

This figure, based on a large household survey conducted by the Government shows that Cambodia has a long way to go in protecting children’s rights to a level accepted by U.N. Member nations.

Cambodia pays lip service to the rights of children – but the Government is on record as saying that these rights don’t – or can’t – apply to households facing extreme poverty. In other words in the absence of any protection, or social welfare safety-net, children will be forced by circumstances into child labour.

Here is the accepted United Nations Article on Child Labour: (Source UNICEF)

Article 32 (Child labour):
The government should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education.While the Convention protects children from harmful and exploitative work, there is nothing in it that prohibits parents from expecting their children to help out at home in ways that are safe and appropriate to their age. If children help out in a family farm orbusiness, the tasks they do be safe and suited to their level of development and comply withnational labour laws. Children’s work should not jeopardize any of their other rights, including the right to education, or the right to relaxation and play.

And here is the news report from the South American news and information Agency Prensa Latina regarding the new survey results:

Phnom Penh, December 2 – 2013 (Prensa Latina) Child labor in Cambodia registers alarming levels, according to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, the Planning Ministry and the International Labor Organization (ILO). The figures corresponding to year 2012 indicate that some 429,000 children were doing the work of adults, two thirds of them in rural areas.

This represents a 10 percent of those between 5 and 17 years of age. Consequently, half of them dropped out of school or never received primary health care, adds the first survey of its kind conducted in the country since 2001.

One of every nine child laborers were engaged in hazardous labor, including working at construction sites or factories, logging, operating heavy machinery and brick-making.

Researchers surveyed a sample of 9,600 households in all 23 provinces and the capital Phnom Penh, but they had no access to children who live at workplaces or those who have been exploited for sex- or drug-trafficking purposes.

In the child labor report foreword, Minister of Planning Chhay Than said he expected the report would be useful to ‘planners and policy-makers. Eliminating child labor in Cambodia is one of the most urgent challenges the government faces,’ he says.

This is a tricky issue for visitors to Cambodia. Do you boycott a cafe that has children clearing the tables? What if the children are the sons and daughters of the owner’s family?

I’d be interested in any responses readers might have. One principle I’d try and stick to is to determine if the children (at a cafe or shop or wherever we might see a child working) are getting a school education. If they are, then their trajectory is a good one. If not, then they’re getting exploited. Any thoughts?

An ethics question for volunteers.

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Any volunteer to Cambodia goes in with their eyes wide open, I hope. Our radar is on and we’re monitoring what we see and hear in order to answer two questions.

  1. Am I doing the right thing here? Am I making a positive or a negative impact?
  2. Is the program I’m involved in a good one: is it making good use of its human and capital resources?

As a part time co-ordinator of volunteers to Savong’s project I get to hear feedback from visitors, though never as much as I’d hope. Many volunteers move on and their busy lives consume them. However most feedback is very positive and the number of referrals from one volunteer to others is testimony to how those two questions are being answered.

However I do hear criticisms as well and they are a reminder to me of how every conversation, everything we hear and everything we witness goes into our evidence gathering in order to ask those two questions. I pass on criticisms to Savong in order that any issues might be dealt with.

When criticism is negative and somebody’s had a less than stellar experience the feedback also comes framed with other criticisms. For example once a volunteer told me: “did you see Savong’s watch? Is this where the donations go?”  (Yes, I’ve seen the watch – a mid-priced Olympic – because I bought it for him as a gift of friendship. He calls it an “old man’s watch.” Another kind group bought him a practical G-Shock watch,) Others have said: “Have you seen what he drives? It’s a Lexus 4WD – is this where the donations go?”

The green Nissan Tundra semi-pick-up. Sometimes he drives his father’s second-hand Lexus. In Cambodia the nation is crawling with highly paid officials and NGO heads driving around in shiny new Lexus vehicles. I suspect that these were donated by Japan en-masse, as part of an aid program that also sorted out Toyota’s vehicle surplus. I might be wrong. But they’ve become a symbol of misdirected funds. Administrators who drive up to a village, measure the poverty and then drive away in air-conditioned comfort. You can imagine.

But when I asked Savong about the vehicle he was quite curt with me.  He asked me if I felt he needed a vehicle to do his job which involves daily commutes 14kms each way between Siem Reap and the school. “Yes,” I replied.

“So why do you mind that I drive a Nissan.”

“I guess it’s the look,” I said. “It looks like the school money goes towards your vehicle.”

“The money came from my work as a tour guide. It came from the business I run to earn an income. So why do people judge me? Do they want me to drive an even older car? Would they be happier if I walked?”

I think he has a point. Westerners are happy to volunteer, but we seem much happier – much less judgmental – if what we witness is poverty. Poor students without pens even, and without paper.  Barefoot teachers who do the best with what little they have.

Yet the moment we build-up the resources, and equip the local people (which is surely what we’re trying to do) we become much more judgmental. Schools, have come a long way from being without stationery. They have computers, and broadband. Savong’s School was given, very generously, a video projector.  So these thing… or the watch?  We don’t mind progress but THIS much progress?? We’d be happier, it seems, if the school was poorer, or the watch was a nasty throw-away: one that – to be honest – we’d not want to wear ourselves.

I think we tread a fine line when we ask ourselves whether programs are making good and fair use of human resources and capital in order to do the job they’re designed to do.  The question is a perfectly fair one, and it needs constant asking.  But we have to be careful that we apply consistent yardsticks when we assess the evidence. If a program director needs a car, then for goodness sakes, equip him or her with a car that goes. A second-hand 4WD shouldn’t get us steamed up. (A stretch Hummer, well that would be another question.) We shouldn’t wish for two standards: a standard we apply to programs in our own countries, versus a “lower” standard in Cambodia.  And we shouldn’t assume that what we see – the watches or vehicles – come out the mouths of the hungry. In this case they haven’t. We need to be vigilant, for sure, but not too quick to judge.

More on volunteering.

Guide for Voluntourists – An Ethical Compass

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Enrolment day 2011. This mother came to the school to ask questions and ensure the school could help her son. Two days later she came back with the website address for a books in schools program. One that I had been unable to find on the net. I love this sense of community involvement.

While debate swirls around Twitter about the pros and cons of voluntourism I thought I’d search for a constructive document to refer to. A good platform for thinking about the issues has been prepared by a group called TIES – The International Eco-Tourism Society. And their objective is to provide an ethical compass both for operators (come on our amazing orphanage tour!) and for tourists who are thinking about the ethical pros and cons.

Click here for their 24 page PDF: Guideline for voluntourists.

Today I’ve been quite busy responding to Twitter criticisms levelled at orphanages in general – and it is no medium in which to have a debate. But it is clear that there are naysayers out there who find it much easier to find fault (but surely the children should be with their parent.  Er, not if there’s domestic violence.) but not so easy to come up with positive, practical ways of helping the poorest Cambodian families and their children.

I don’t mind any such debate. I’m glad that NGOs are being held to higher account though I find some of the critics’ arguments quite risible or over-simplistic. (Money isn’t the issue…we should do what’s best…) Hmmmn. If only money wasn’t an issue.

But at the root of the discussion, on both sides, there beats a common heart – and that is one that cares for the children of Cambodia. If you’re planning to visit, do read up on these issues.

Some guidelines:

  • Deal with licensed, reputable NGOs.  Ignore those that tout for your visit.
  • Expect to be asked for photo ID. Don’t just walk in.
  • Plan to make a long-term difference – ask yourself how you might do this.
  • Work with children only in the presence of other adults.
  • Do your homework. There’s an good argument to say that many of us could reduce our negative footprint simply by sending money to a good cause. So ask yourself – am I making a difference by being here?

For more about volunteering see also:

Click here:  A new policy at Savong’s organisation: designed to raise the bar.

The ethics of gifting

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I had a very thoughtful piece of feedback today from a woman whose opinion I greatly trust and admire. Lori works with the brilliant Ponheary Ly Foundation in Siem Reap, and she has immersed herself in Cambodia and in the business, if I may call it that, of promoting and funding a worthwhile cause. The PLF is one of the most efficient, ethical NGOs that I know of in Cambodia, and if Ponheary Ly or Lori Carlson raise a point of discussion, well these are two people who are expert in their field, realistic in their approach and focused 100% on the cause of education for disadvantaged children in Cambodia.

Lori very politely asked me if I’d thought through the ramifications of yesterday’s posting about collecting good used laptops and distributing these to needy students in Cambodia.

Here are two downsides she raised. And I can add more.

1) Imagine you were the up and coming retailer in Siem Reap setting up in the laptop retailing business. Suddenly, an overseas organisation dumps product into your market.  Where instead of purchasing locally, and having that money largely spin around the Cambodian economy, we help put a nail into the side of the local family business.

2) The economy of shipping used laptops to Cambodia is less impressive than you might first guess. Between collection, packing and then shipping the value depreciates – but used laptops will also attract sizeable duty in Cambodia also. (We found that with books three eyars ago – even second-hand books.)

Good points. I can add another downside. Supposed we give a laptop in good faith and, used baby that it is, it fails or has problems.  Could the poor Cambodian student afford the repairs? Are we giving a gift, or a burden?

The discussion is a good one.  After all, the concept of world aid has moved a long way from the sending of used blankets to flood victims overseas.  Every gifting dollar needs to add value to the recipient – the individual, their family, their village and ultimately their nation.

I’ve always felt that education, per se, is one of the most socially beneficial and efficient gifts we can can offer – but just as I point out to visitors that bringing felt tips from overseas is quite needless (you can get them cheaper in Siem Reap, and you support local enterprise) then Lori’s point about bringing in laptops is precisely the same.

Time for me to go back, have a think and to better develop my thinking around the gifting of capital items.  Thank you Lori.

Meanwhile, lest I cause any confusion, let me point out that the Laptops awarded to scholarship students last month were all purchased in Siem Reap – brand new, and I dare say at a price cheaper than you could find in Singapore. Win, win, win.