Reformist Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron is busy rejuvenating an education system that was derailed entirely in the 1970’s and afforded very little attention by governments since.
“The reforms we are working on start from the ground. Numerous meetings through all the Cambodian provinces enabled the identification of the priorities and best practices in order to deploy the necessary measures to fill the gaps.”
The Kingdom of Cambodia has been making steady progress as a nation for the past few years, in part thanks to the support of international development agencies. However, as a consequence of the recent and troubled history of the country, the Cambodian education system is relatively new—a topic discussed at length during a conference on rebuilding the education system hosted by the Ministry of Education and French Institute in January. To get back on track following much neglect, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), through the strong commitment of Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron and his team, is currently implementing reforms on the run as the ASEAN Economic Community integrates and the world’s economy continues to globalise. Across the country, access to education is increasing, as is the quality of teaching staff and program materials. Sustaining these improvements, however, constitutes a major and decisive challenge that will have great bearing on Cambodia’s competitiveness in the region and world, as well as its economic and social development.
The ambitious reforms initiated by Dr Hang Chuon Naron include many components aimed at training the talents of tomorrow, improving the quality of teaching and increasing the success rate at baccalaureate level. These include the revision of the school curricula with a new focus on History and Khmer language, the development of teaching materials, wage policy and teacher training, and also the improvement of vocational training. One immediate reform has been a project where four core subjects (mathematics, physics, chemistry, and technology) are given special attention with evening and weekend classes offered to pupils by teachers on a voluntary basis, paid by local authorities and organisations, according to the minister. Special private lessons are now also offered by the professors and awareness of these programs is spreading fast, he says, via parents, students and teachers.
Late Starters and Drop Outs
Among the challenges identified by the ministry as paramount is providing access to education for all, regardless of a family’s financial situation or geographical location. While some children do not begin school until the age of seven or eight, especially in remote areas, others drop out in their mid-teens to start earning money for their family. In 2008, the dropout rate was 19%, most of them from high school, according to the Ministry, which sees many of those looking to enter the labour market in neighbouring countries such as Thailand, where the construction and textiles sectors are big employers of cheap, foreign labour.
The Education Ministry’s mission is to stem this outward flow of young people, little by little, starting with convincing parents to start their children at school from the kindergarten age of six. Children who are enrolled early, according to Ministry statistics, are much more likely to continue their studies. Those same figures, however, show a marked improvement in the amount of students reaching grade 12, with 30% getting there today, compared to just 8% in the 1990s. To maintain this development, the Ministry is supporting the construction of schools around the country and also a project where it collaborates with some 20 NGOs to reintegrate young people forced out of the school system for one reason or another. Since 2013, a mechanism has been established as part of the Cambodian Education Framework to evaluate the equivalent skills of these people accordingly.
Teaching the Teachers
Teachers were once some of the most revered and respected people in Cambodian society, but all that went by the wayside in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. Key to the Education Ministry’s reform is placing pride back in this job, starting with making them better trained, better respected and better paid. While the quality of teachers has risen steadily since the end of the war, the minister says, they today would be around a BAC +2 level, which is inferior to other countries in the region, where a minimum BAC+4 level is required to become a teacher. The Ministry has thus set up an accelerated training system at the National Institute of Education to bridge this gap and bring local teachers in line with those in the region. Dr Hang Chuon Naron said that a goal had been set for 50,000 teachers to reach that level by 2020.
With many reforms underway, Dr Chuon Naron, whose mandate ends in 2018, calls for the continuation of efforts and actions undertaken by him and his predecessors so that the education system is able to respond to market demands in a developing Cambodia. After resuming his studies at the age of 48 in 2010 to complete a master’s in International and Comparative Law, the Minister is himself an example that education is not a set series of structured undertakings, but a lifelong lesson where nothing is fixed and everything is possible.
“The new career Counselling system should enable the students to make the best choices as far as orientation and specialities are concerned. Its ambition is also to keep the students in the school system as long as possible.”
H.E Dr. Hang Chuon Naron at the Phnom Penh Education Forum in October 2016 © IBC
“Some professors from the public sector teach in the private sector, and vice versa. There are two systems of diplomas in Cambodia: Cambodian diplomas and international diplomas. It is an absolute certainty that competition between public and private schools and universities boosts the whole educational system.”
Words Nimith Chleng and Leila Pelletier