Primary Schools in Spotlight at Funding Talks

Less than a week after Unicef announced that primary school enrollment in Cambodia had reached a high of 94.5 percent, government officials and foreign donors met Tuesday to discuss ways to improve the quality of the education those students are getting.

They came together for the start of a two-day workshop hosted by the Finance Ministry in Phnom Penh to help the government decide how to prioritize education spending over the next two years.

Despite high student enrollment, Cambodia’s more than 55,000 primary school teachers are hard to come by in rural areas and lag behind their regional counterparts in training.

“Students should spend six years to transition from primary to secondary school, but in Cambodia it takes eight years on average and in some cases 10 years. The quality of the teachers explains this,” said Nath Bunroeun, a secretary of state at the Education Ministry.

As for the gap between rural and urban education, Tsuyoshi Fukao, the World Bank’s resident education specialist, said it was evident in teacher-student ratios.

“The teacher-student ratio in six provinces, like Prey Veng, Oddar Meanchey, Siem Reap and Ratanakkiri, is about 50 to one. The ratio in Phnom Penh is 32 to one,” he said, suggesting a raise in salaries to change that.

“Their salary is $120. So a $20 [relocation] incentive is not enough,” he said “We are saying double of the salary. If the salary is $120, it should be $240. But this has to be done with step-by-step increase.”

Pat Mony, deputy director of Sokha Phally secondary school in Kompong Speu province’s Chbar Mon City, agreed that the Education Ministry should spend more on salaries.

“Teachers from other provinces come to teach, but the salary is so small that they need to have another job. That’s why they teach only one to two hours a day,” she said.

Unicef’s education specialist, Erika Boak, said the government should do more to place teachers in the communities where they live, and let teachers in indigenous communities teach in the local language.

“Unicef is advocating to have a sustainable teaching force that is from the local areas,” she said. “You can potentially drop your standards slightly for your qualifications, but have local people teach in the local language.”

To improve teaching quality across the board, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said the government plans to make bachelor’s degrees mandatory for all secondary and primary school teachers.

“With this new standard we will ask new teachers to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and for the existing teachers we will encourage them to upgrade their education,” he said.

“We will open training programs sponsored by the government and short courses offered by private universities, but we will consider topping up salaries as incentives for teachers to get the training.”

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