Friday, December 12, 2014

Cambodia: a better education for every child?

By Martina Tomassini

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, 12 December 2014 — Twenty-five years ago, children’s rights were acknowledged for the first time around the world with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of CRC, we look at the progress that Cambodia has achieved in education. Channra Chum, Education Specialist at UNICEF Cambodia since 2004, helps us understand what has changed and what still needs to change to ensure all children in Cambodia receive a quality education.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Nhean Sroeung 
Channra Chum with students at Damnak Kantuot Primary School in Kampong Trach, Kampot province.  Channra visited this school earlier in 2014 with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) and the Swedish Embassy to monitor how funds have been used to improve teaching supporting the most vulnerable children, including children with disabilities and children from poor households. 

1. This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What does that mean for you on a personal and on a professional level? 

On a personal level, I think that the event is an opportunity to raise awareness: people may not normally talk about children’s rights, such as the right to life, health, protection and play. This anniversary is an opportunity for them to remember that children’s rights are real and need to be protected. And it’s an opportunity for children to speak up and participate, expressing what children’s rights really mean for them. On a professional level, this anniversary reminds me of why I do what I do. Sometimes I get very busy with technical things like reporting, expenditures, etc. but actually everything I do is about child rights. For example, in my work I may say “reduce school drop-out rates from 21% to 15% by the next two years”. The words “child rights” are not mentioned but they are implied: when you ensure that children stay in school you promote their right to education.

The anniversary is also a reminder to look at the bigger picture and make sure we work together as a team across all the different rights (for example the right to food and health) to achieve child development as a whole. It’s also a chance for the government too, to remember to take action in a more comprehensive and holistic way, not just in one area.

2. How were things when you went to school? How are they today? 

When I went to primary school thirty years ago nobody talked about children’s rights. I was born in Prey Veng. I had to walk 3 km to go to school; living conditions were very difficult at that time, at least in my community. We didn’t have a uniform and only teachers had textbooks; we learned by copying from the blackboard. A lot of writing every day. I had friends with disabilities in my community who didn’t go to school although they were the same age as me. At that time, I didn’t question that; I didn’t know that they too had the right to be educated. Parents didn’t see the value of education for children with disabilities either. They thought that they wouldn’t be able to learn. Teachers themselves said that, if you have a disability, it’s better for you not to go school, otherwise you’ll interfere with other students. It’s about perception and a lack of understanding of children’s rights. My teacher had very little training: it was just after the Khmer Rouge regime so not much training was available then.

Today I see many cases where children with disabilities can go and learn with other children. I remember one child I met a few years ago in a school in Kampong Thom province. He was about 10 years old and could not walk, so he was sitting in a wheelchair inside the classroom. I asked him how he felt about his class and he said he was very happy to be able to go to school every day. He also said that his classmates helped him by pushing his wheelchair; I noticed that the school had a ramp to make it easier for wheelchairs to enter the building. The child was very focused on learning and this made me the happiest. I’m proud to work for UNICEF who is supporting the training of teachers to understand and meet the special needs of children with disabilities.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Anne-Sophie Galli 
Un Kosal, 14, was born with shortened forearms and no hands. She used to go to Por Khtum Primary School, in Kampong Thom province, and is now in secondary school.

3. Education is one of the areas where Cambodia has made the biggest progress in the past 25 years. How has the situation improved? 

The situation has improved in several ways: the number of primary schools has increased; more and more vulnerable children are able to go to school; a record 95.8% of children are in enrolled in primary school; more qualified teachers are being trained and sent to schools in remote areas; and Child-Friendly Schools are now implemented across the country. The idea behind Child-Friendly Schools is to offer quality education through a holistic approach to child development and learning, taking into consideration children’s learning environment (health and safety), parents and community.

4. What makes you the happiest in your work?

What makes me happiest and most proud is when I visit schools across Cambodia and see children actively learning. I also really admire the teachers trying their best to teach students, the future of our nation, especially in the remote schools. They are my heroes.

5. What areas still need attention to ensure that all children get quality education? 

The fact that some children don’t go to school to help their parents earn an income, as well as seasonal migration within Cambodia and across its borders, means that the drop-out rate in primary school rises to over 15 per cent in some provinces.

Also, the recent G12 exam results shows that a lot of work still needs to be done to reach consistent quality education across the country. While efforts are being made to increase salary for teachers, at the moment many teachers need to supplement their incomes with another job and motivation is low. UNICEF and other development partners are working with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) to review the school curriculum: the current number of teaching hours is not sufficient to ensure quality. Teacher’s training and professional development needs to be strengthened.

62 per cent and 70 per cent of the children living in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces respectively are not mother tongue speakers of Khmer, yet there are not enough multilingual schools (schools that teach children in their mother tongue during the early years) to ensure all children are able to learn.
The number of children enrolled in lower secondary education is too low (53.5 per cent) and reduces to 30.2 per cent in Ratanakiri. This is a big problem; if children don’t complete their education, how do they become educated adults who can contribute to the country?

Finally, despite recent progress, early childhood education needs to increase for 3 to 5-year-olds. Today 60 per cent of 5-year-olds attend a form of early childhood education, we want that to increase to 100 per cent.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Rowena Campbell
Children drawing in a community pre-school in Beng village, Prey Veng province.

6. What is early childhood education and why is it important?   

Early childhood education is a form of education for 3-5 year olds before they start primary school. Children absorb a large amount of information when they are very young; if they are not properly stimulated and supported in their early growth they will perform worse in primary school. Research supported by UNICEF shows that children who get early childhood education develop better in primary school; stay longer in school (fewer drop-outs); and perform better in higher education and in life. That’s amazing and shows the true power of early education.

Previously people didn’t believe that early childhood education was as important as primary education. Some parents say, “In pre-school teachers teach my child how to sing a song and they just play games”. They don’t understand how a child develops emotionally, physically and intellectually. But attitudes are improving and parents can see the benefits of sending their children to pre-school. UNICEF continues to support the Government to set up community pre-schools across the country.

7. What is UNICEF Cambodia’s goal in the area of education and how will you reach that goal? 

In the next three to five years UNICEF will continue to work towards three main goals: 1. Inclusive education (education for all regardless of background, ethnicity, disability or gender); 2. Relevant curriculum so that children and youth can learn the technical and life skills required by the job market; 3. High-quality teaching through teachers’ training and certification. To reach these goals, UNICEF will continue to support the Government of Cambodia with technical knowledge and financial support. The ultimate goal is for the Government to reach a position where it can plan and implement education programmes effectively without external help. It’s a tangible goal and I look forward to getting there one day.


  1. Definitely.A better education should need for every children.Because children life in dark with out education in their future.
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  2. According to President Barrack Obama education is an investment for the future and it will pay us after few years. He prefers to invest his budget and funds in early education so that they become a strong and powerful person for their society and research paper wrіtіng servіce is there to help.

  3. Channra, you have demonstrated a deep insight about Cambodia's education and helped me understand it profoundly. I hope UNICEF and the government work shoulder by shoulder to achieve the mentioned three goals. Good on you. From Bonich

  4. how many children don't get education before you started this program