Are girls lagging behind in the Cambodian school system?


A long-held concern with the re-emergence of the Cambodian education system has been the worry that girls are being disadvantaged, perhaps for reasons of tradition (is it the girl’s place is to look after younger siblings?) and possibly for systemic reasons: for example more male teachers.

Well, the Ministry’s figures suggest girls are doing virtually as well as boys, overall, though are clearly disadvantaged in at least half a dozen of Cambodia’s provinces.

MOEYS (The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport,) has in its most recent census (2013) of school attendance measured the number of students who have successfully graduated past 3 goal-posts: Grade 6, 9 and 12 (which mark the completion grades for Primary, Lower Secondary and Secondary schools.)

Of those students who pass at each level, what percentage are girls? The answer, 49% for the lower grades, and 48% for Grade 12.

In other words almost exactly half of all students. A great result. More than this; the figures are almost identical when we compare Urban schools with Rural schools. Here are the MOEYS statistics.


In half a dozen provinces, (I’ve indicated these in oranges and red) however, there is room for improvement and the Ministry, to it’s credit, is working to ensure gender equality within the education system.

For more fresh data about Education in Cambodia:

How qualified are the teachers of Cambodia? Ministry figures say it’s improving.


The 2013 census conducted by MOEYS found that of all teaching staff in Cambodia (primary and secondary) one in every 8 now has a degree – a dramatic improvement over the figures from 5 or 10 years ago.

However a third of teachers have not completed High School – and this is a major challenge for the education system especially with regards to lifting the standards of Primary School teaching.

See also: A teacher shortage in rural areas. And how many students complete the voyage all the way past Grade 12? See the completion rate data. This is all sourced from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. (MOEYS)

A crisis is looming in teaching circles: a growing shortage of primary school teachers in rural areas. For more on this – click here. In fact here’s a story written in Cambodian Daily which starkly tells the story. Great piece of writing.

Digging below the data. Government figures reveal a teacher shortage in Siem Reap


Savong’s School prize giving, Ministry of Education figures show there isn’t a classroom shortage in the province: the real shortage is that of teaching staff.

I’m a facts and figures kind of guy, and by day I work with statistics. In truth when I go to sleep my head is often still swirling with numbers and calculations. Lately I’ve been looking at the figures published by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education Youth and Sport (MOEYS) based on a comprehensive schools census undertaken in 2012 and 2013.

You can imagine the paperwork, with every principal of every school expected to fill in accurate figures of their school enrolments and staffing levels. Statistically this is a nightmare. The simple truth is, on any given day, the number of students who may have enrolled but have actually shown up at school is at wide variance. Many students enroll  at school but for reasons of poverty, distance, health, family circumstances as well is the widespread need to help mum and dad during harvest season – all these reasons contribute to actual school numbers being somewhat fuzzy at best.

But I take my hat off to the Ministry for getting the best available numbers together in order for them to plan the progress of education in Cambodia.  I won’t reproduce their tables of data here, (you probably don’t share my appetite for stats,) but I did examine them and perform a few calculations of my own in order to get a picture of how Siem Reap is served educationally.

Hands up if you think that Siem Reap is a relatively prosperous region in Cambodia thanks to its burgeoning tourist numbers. Well, see me after class. In fact this province is one of the poorest in Cambodia, and if the city itself seems bustling and well-to-do, then the rural areas must be very poor in order to drag the averages down. They are.

Let’s take three simple key performance indicators to run a health check on Siem Reap’s relative education resources.

The first of these KPIs is the presence of truly disadvantaged schools. The Ministry definition of a disadvantaged school is quite rigourous. It is a school where there are no toilets, and where there are inadequate floors and walls or roofing on the classrooms. A school has to tick all of those boxes in order to be classified as a disadvantaged school. In 2013 just 1.5 percent (170) of Cambodia’s 11,370 schools  were considered disadvantaged.  In Siem Reap  21 schools of the region’s 911 (2.3%) were considered disadvantaged.

Now let’s look at enrolments per classroom. Figures differ according to who conducts these surveys, and according to which assumptions the statisticians must take when they calculate the figures. I think the UN figures suggest larger classroom sizes than do the Ministry’s own figures.  But let’s stick with the  Ministry’s figures.  On average, they say, there are 38.3 students per classroom. The percentages are identical almost, when they compare urban and rural areas; a finding that surprised me. But some areas are better served than others, and in  Siem Reap there are 43 children per classroom, one of the highest ratios in all of Cambodia.

I then did some crosschecking, by looking at the ratio of  students per teacher. After all one could have a school with plenty of physical classrooms, but not have many teachers on the payroll. The Ministry breaks down staff figures into teaching staff and non-teaching staff, so I have focused here on the teaching staff. And remember this is primary as well as secondary schools. Overall in Cambodia there are 36 students for each of the 87,203 teaching staff.  Basically that suggests there is one classroom per teacher, and both ratios I have used come out more or less the same. Compared 36 students per teacher compared with 38 students per classroom.

No drama there, surely.

But hold on!  If we look at Phnom Penh,we see a relative oversupply of teachers. The students per teacher ratio in Phnom Penh is 23 to 1.  That’s quite a difference from their students per classroom figure of 40 students per classroom. Either this means that teachers are sharing their classrooms with each other, or that there are more part-time staff, taking turns in these classrooms.

Meanwhile in Siem Reap there are 51 students per teacher. In other words there don’t appear to be enough teachers to fill the region’s 5860 classrooms. (According to the numbers, there are 4888 teachers in the Siem Reap province.) Only one other region comes close to having a similar teacher shortage: a hallmark of rural areas rather than city areas.

I do think there is one methodological gap in the Ministry’s census of school enrolment numbers. They have done a pretty diligent job of collecting the data, entering it carefully, and calculating the numbers.  In fact I take my hat off to them as a fellow researcher.  But I wonder if they have factored-in the role of NGOs in the mix. There is nothing that I can find in the Ministry figures that suggest that this is the case, and quite possibly we will see the classroom teacher ratios move around somewhat once more schools – and Savong’s School is just one example – become registered and part of the overall Ministry picture.

Quite possibly, thanks to overseas supported schools around Siem Reap, the key performance measures are less dire then they appear. I hope so, but from the evidence collected by the Ministry, it is clear that the government is currently unable by itself to get the teacher ratios to a healthy level both in rural and city areas. The shortage of teachers in the countryside is one of the major challenges faced by the education system of Cambodia.

For more facts and figures: click here.

An ice-cold drink in Bakong


One of the features of life in Bakong is the symbiotic nature of small business enterprise and the presence of larger businesses or organisations. The biggest source of business in the area of course is the Bakong Temple itself, and it attracts busloads of tourists. Near where the buses stop several little businesses that have popped up to take advantage of the tourist market. These include food sellers, souvenir sellers, but also small NGOs including one which trains its young children to produce beautiful artwork on leather.

Near Savong school there is a similar presence of local businesses willing to earn a few riel by selling drinks, fruit and snacks to the passing trade of schoolchildren. My favourite of these is in fact no longer there. Opposite the driveway which leads down to Savong’s school used to stand a thatch hut from which a woman, a local farmer, sold iced drinks.

The drinks used to cost something like 200 riel, or just a few cents in the American currency. Yet these drinks were labour-intensive and required resourcefulness on the part of the supplier. For a start, the woman would take a block of ice sourced from a larger retailer a few hundred metres further down the road. She and her young son would cycle down the dusty road to haggle over the price of the ice, and then while we patiently waited for our drinks, she would return triumphant having scored a modest block of ice for a good price. Next, she would shave the ice using a wooden plane with a steel blade. She did this with a proud level of craftsmanship as if she was turning an exquisite piece of teak wood in her honest farmers hands. Now the ice shards would be placed by hand into the plastic cups, and over the ice she would pour a cocktail consisting of condensed milk and a syrupy flavouring. I can tell you, on a crucially hot afternoon in Bakong, I can imagine no refreshment more delicious and enjoyable than this one! As we sipped on the drinks, a couple of teachers and myself, the woman stood there, arms folded, proud of her work and proud to see us enjoying her refreshing concoction.

I have often wondered where the ice comes from in rural Bakong. Things are changing there today,  with the arrival of electricity to the area: something which will transform the local refreshment economy. I can imagine there will be no middleman purchasing ice from Siem Reap, and on selling blocks of ice to the myriad drink sellers beer joints and snack vendors in the area. soon there will be the hot hum of small refrigerators struggling to make ice cubes in the face of the scorching heat outside. Such is the way economies restructure themselves, even at a village level.

The Yellow Pages of Cambodia features 26 different companies who manufacture ice. Most of these are situated in Phnom Penh, while at least half a dozen of these companies supply the busy hospitality market of Siem Reap.  Perhaps my ice had come originally from the Golden Falcon Ice Factory located on Number 6 Highway close to the centre of town. Or maybe the ice came from another factory just 200 m away from the Golden Falcon ice factory; Heang Hok Kheang. who knows? Somehow the distribution system had enabled a block of ice to be manufactured in town and then stored, wrapped and preserved in muslin fabric, until the mid afternoon.

When I encounter ice in rural remote places of Cambodia I am reminded of the marvellous novel by Paul Theroux called Mosquito Coast. In the story, an American inventor named Allie Fox takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle. In the book, Allie Fox makes a device, a maze of metal tubes, he nicknames “the worm farm” which creates ice. For Fox, ice is one of the greatest signs of civilisation. The man rant and rails that any civilisation can produce fire, but how many can create ice?

It is a hellish book that begins as a simple adventure for the family but descends into an experience not too different to the dystopian, Joseph Conrad inspired Apocalypse Now.

That’s quite a flashback to have while enjoying an icy syrupy drink on a hot afternoon, and thanks to the grace and dedication of that farming woman, the experience I enjoyed was decidedly civilised. Ice in the middle of the village.

Last time I went to Savong school, I looked for traces of her drinks stall. There was nothing there except a few bamboo poles and the remnants of thatching. The woman had lost the stall in a major typhoon that had swept through the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. I can only imagine that any money, any small change that this woman had earned making her gorgeous drinks had been lost in that storm. Today when I look at the photos I took on the day she proudly made me her rural cocktail, I hope she and her family are all right.

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


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.


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

Savong’s School takes another step.


Agony or Ecstasy? Students at Savong’s School clamour to see how they fared in the latest exams.

Hey I’m back. It’s been a month between blogs in part due to a need to recharge my batteries and also to give you gracious followers a break!

This last week I had a terrific Skype call withe Savong regarding the school. This year marks our tenth year of working together and I’ve often reflected on how the vision of Savong – to provide free education that gives a vocational boost to poor rural students – has remained intact while the expression of this vision has had to move with the times. Ten years ago providing language skills that would get a student work in a guest house was truly aspirational. Today that vocation is pretty basic and students are wanting to reach higher. Some want to be doctors, lawyers and business owners. Their dreams are bigger.

What Savong talked about is a reconfiguration of his school which two weeks ago received fresh licensing from the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport (MOEYS) and is seen by Government as part of the network of local official schools rather than as an NGO “rival” to the State system. That distinction is important because up until now Savong School has been operating in a complementary fashion to the local high school in Bakong. When it operated in the morning, Savong’s school opened in the afternoons: the aim being to give local students a booster shot of additional education.

This year Bakong High School extended its hours, which we’re certainly not complaining about, but it has squeezed Savong School opening hours later and later. Right now it opens not at 2:00pm but at 4:00pm and finishes in the black of night which in Cambodia arrives at 7:00pm. This is late for the students, and less safe for those who walk to their homes.

Rather than be sandwiched like this, Savong sees a better solution which is to extend the hours of the school and to teach a wider syllabus including Khmer lessons (mathematics, history) as well as the languages and computer skills already taught.  Students would be allowed to choose this school rather than Bakong High School and of course Savong would stick to the core vision of providing free education. State Schools are supposed to be free, but the practice of charging a monthly fee to help boost teacher salaries is widespread and hurts poorer families.

Examinations held at Savong School will – as they are already – be recognised by the State system.

The change of syllabus offering needs planning. Teachers, support textbooks need to be prepared, and any change needs to be carefully communicated to the community. Savong is picturing any changes to take place in October when the new school year begins.

I’m very excited by Savong’s plans and look forward to the additional service and support his school can offer local students.

Here’s the latest on the new school plans. Can you assist?