The voyage through school: how many make it past Grade 12?


The Cambodian Ministry of Youth Education and Sport (MOEYS) has recently published a lot of education related data which, at last, gives us reasonably current information about the state of education in Cambodia today. One of the most telling figures comes from a table which charts the  percentage of eligible students who make it past primary school, lower secondary school as well as upper secondary school. The results for Cambodia as a whole show that less than half of young Cambodians are making it past grade 9. Just over a quarter complete the voyage through the school system, and graduate from grade 12.

The figures show there is a long way to go, but more so in rural and poor areas of Cambodia. Look at the contrast between the Phnom Penh figures, and those of Siem Reap. This is precisely the challenge and reason for Savong’s School to be established in rural Siem Reap. And our effort is a drop in the ocean.

Incidentally the boy in the photograph, Seanghai, is quite handily beating the statistics. He comes from Phnom Penh, though now he lives and studies in Siem Reap and is supported by the Savong Foundation. By next year he will be in university, so long as he keeps studying hard!

For more up to date figures from the Cambodian education sector – teacher student ratios and a teacher shortage in Siem Reap. Plus: How Qualified are the Teachers of Cambodia?

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!

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.

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

Cambodia’s Literacy Rate


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.)


Savong and the senior students. Removing risks and setting guidelines.


2014 is shaping up as the year that Savong gets really systemised. I’ve worked with him since 2004 and since then we have progressed from a small ad-hoc classroom to gradually become an NGO that includes a student center, a school with 650 enrollments, two children’s homes and a provider of scholarships. By the end of last year Savong was run ragged, trying to keep everything running smoothly.

Two days ago I had a long Skype chat with Savong and he explained how he was, step by step, putting management systems and reporting structures in place throughout his organisation. As with any organisation that gets bigger, one loses some of the informality and one starts having to lay down rule and guidelines.

Yesterday Savong assembled the senior SOC students who are supported through funding from the Savong Foundation in the USA (Phil and the team do an amazing job) as well that those students I raise funds for: the Scholarship students of whom there are 16.  So that’s the photo above, this rather large family of sponsored senior students.

Savong has worked with them to establish some operating rules and as we discussed, these include some expectations (this is no place for laziness) but also a clear commitment to keep supporting the students even when there are challenges. I certainly feel that the money we provide in support is only half the story: the real thing we’re providing is the absence of fear.

I saw that when Savong and I first worked together.  When he realised that we were committed to assist him through thick and thin, then his dreams got bigger and more useful: his plans became longer term.  So it is with the students in the photo. They are a committed group of young people, but the difference between these students and many others is that we’ve moved them a few steps away from the risks and unforeseen disasters that plague life in Cambodia, given that there is no safety net.

For many young people the four-year trek towards a degree is almost certain to include bouts of sickness, or family tragedies, or perhaps an accident that wipes out one’s precious savings. One of the teachers once told me of a friend of his who was electrocuted, due to faulty wiring in the young man’s corrugated-iron shack: he touched the wall one morning and was killed tragically.

How can one dream big when you are worried by the risks of life?

I felt a pang of regret when Savong told me of the rules and guidelines he’s setting for the students. I guess I miss the laissez-faire days and, for sure, I would make a lousy manager of this burgeoning NGO. But one thing about guidelines: these also establish more certainty for the students as they embark on their journey through the sometimes rough seas of higher education.  A ship is safer when it has handrails and life-jackets.

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.