Education and training

Chi Phat primary school, Koh Kong Province. Photo by ODC team, taken on 28 November 2017. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Access to free, good quality education in Cambodia is a right set out in the country’s Constitution: 

  • Article 65: “The State shall protect and promote citizens’ rights to quality education at all levels and shall take all measures, step by step, to make quality education available to all the citizens….”
  • Article 66: “The State shall establish a comprehensive and standardized educational system throughout the country which shall guarantee the principles of freedom to operate educational institutions and equal access to education…”
  • Article 67: “…The State shall control public and private educational institutions and classrooms at all levels.”
  • Article 68: “The State shall ensure for all citizens free primary and secondary education at public schools. Citizens shall receive schooling for at least nine years.”1

Cambodia is moving towards 100 percent enrolment of children in primary education. Government spending on education has increased substantially in recent years. Hundreds of new schools are being built, and literacy rates have improved. But while some areas of education have made big advances, enormous challenges remain.

The National Strategic Development Plan 2014–2018 puts it in plain language: “The education sector lags and concerted effort is required for improvement. Principal problems include the low quality of learning, limited learning infrastructure, insufficient well-qualified teachers, not fully implemented quality assurance systems, and few quality institutions of higher education”.2

To put numbers to some of the challenges:

  • With one teacher for every 43 students in public primary schools, Cambodia has the poorest pupils-teacher ratio in ASEAN.3
  • Although primary school enrollment rates are climbing closer to 100 percent, attendance and completion figures are significantly lower. One survey found that only 81 percent of girls and 83 percent of boys aged 6–11 years were actually attending primary school.4 Some figures are getting worse: the primary school completion in 2015 fell to 80.6 percent from 84 percent a year earlier; and 9 more districts had fewer than 80 percent of children completing primary school.5

Early childhood education

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport have said that for the 2018–19 academic year, the figures for early childhood education were:

  • 59,363 3-year-old children were registered for education – 18.5 percent of all 3-year-olds
  • 121,958 4-year-olds were registered – 39.4 percent of all 4-year-olds
  • 191,832 5-year-olds were registered – 63.1 percent of all 5-year-olds.6

Save the Children have said that in 2017, only 0.3 per cent of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport’s budget was allocated to early childhood education.7

Primary and secondary education 

The government is working towards a basic nine-year education for all Cambodian children, as provided for in the Constitution. Technically, a child can complete 12 years of schooling: six years at the primary level (grade 1 to 6), three years for lower secondary (grade 7 to 9) and another three years for upper secondary education (grade 10 to 12).

Enrollment rates for the 2016/17 school year were 93.5 percent for primary, 55.7 percent for lower secondary and 25.1 percent at upper secondary level.8

In a May 2019 report, Save the Children said that the percentage of children of primary and secondary school age who are not attending school is still high at 22.5 percent.9

Government figures indicate that for each year at primary school, 6.6 percent of students repeat a year and 4.6 percent drop out. For lower secondary, the figures are 2.5 percent repeating each year and 17 percent dropping out. For upper secondary, 2.8 percent are repeating classes each year and 19.4 percent are dropping out.10

Total completion rates fall dramatically after primary school: from 79.9 percent at primary school to 42.6 percent at lower secondary and 20.2 percent at upper secondary.11 Across the country, more girls are completing primary school than boys: 83.2 percent vs 76.1 percent.12 This gender difference also applies to lower and upper secondary completion. 

Although public schools are nominally free for children to attend, research from 2012 found that, as in many countries with “free” education, many students and parents say they incur costs.13 This was estimated at $119 per student per year – a considerable amount for low income families and those with several school-age children. Cost may contribute to dropout rates. 

Schools and school conditions

Cambodia had 12,889 schools (including 7,144 primary schools) in 2016/2017.14 This is 1519 more schools than at the start of 2013.15 

While the construction of school facilities across the country is impressive, facilities can be basic. For example, 40.9 percent of primary schools and 53.7 percent of secondary schools do not have water.16 and 14.1 percent of primary schools and 9 percent of secondary schools do not have latrines according to Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MOEYS) figures in 2017.17 There is very little difference between urban and rural schools.

Pagodas play a key role in education. MOEYS 2017 data shows 1,030 schools are totally within pagoda compounds.18

Education budget and teacher training

“Recruiting enough teachers is still a very big challenge in Cambodia. In order to fix this, we must increase the education budget to award proper salaries and maintain highly capable teachers,” Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron has said.19

Around 18,000 teachers are university graduates. For 51,820, upper secondary is their highest level of study; for 19,267, lower secondary; and there are 1,779 teachers who have only attended primary school classes.20

UNESCO recommends governments spend a minimum of 20 percent of the national budget on education. The Ministry of Education’s budget is climbing towards that figure. In 2014, education spending was $335 million, less than 10 percent of the national budget; the proposed education spending for 2018 is $848 million, around 14 percent of the total budget.21 

The salaries of teachers of public schools have risen significantly in recent years, but from a low base. At the beginning of 2014, the average minimum wage for teachers was $80 a month.22 but by April 2017 it had jumped to $230 (not including bonuses).23

There are also many foreign expatriates teaching English in Cambodia, mostly in private schools, and few entry barriers to this. The average salary for this role in Phnom Penh is $10–14 per hour.24

By 2020, the Ministry of Education plans to increase the minimum teacher training from nine years basic schooling plus two years teacher training at provincial centers to 12 years basic education and four years of teacher training.25

Literacy

The literacy rate among youth aged 15-24 years stood at 92.2 percent in 2015,26​  an increase of four percentage points compared to 2008. The Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2015 found that the adult literacy rate was 80.5 percent.27

High levels of work-related migration makes lifting adult literacy rates difficult. Many illiterate people move around work in factories, making long-term night class commitments difficult.

Tertiary education

The weakness of Cambodia’s higher education and training sector is very evident in the measures of The Global Competitiveness Index 2017–2018. For this element, Cambodia ranked 124th out of 137 countries.28​   The quality of primary education ranked 112th out of 137. The inadequately-educated workforce is the second biggest problem (after corruption) when it comes to doing business in Cambodia.29

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MOEYS) released a policy document on Higher Education Vision 2030 in April 2014.30 Higher education is crucial to national development. The policy document sets strategies and action plans for implementing the vision, which is about access to and quality of education, and programs that match development and labour market needs.

A key concern about higher education voiced in the document is the large number of Khmer studying business subjects, and the relatively small number who opt to study science, engineering or agriculture. These latter subjects are, the document says, “areas of study considered to be key skills to foster the growth of the Cambodian economy.”31

Future plans

MOEYS has responded to the outcomes expected in the NSDP 2014–2018 by preparing the Education Strategic Plan (ESP) 2014–2018.32​ This has an increasing focus on the expansion of early childhood education, expanding access to quality secondary and post-secondary education and non-formal education, technical and vocational education. Specific measures will be taken to assure the education for marginalized children and youth.

In January 2016 the government launched its first nationwide policy for child development, to be overseen by the Cambodia National Council for Children.33 The policy aims to reduce the student dropout rates and increase vocational training opportunities, among other things.

Last update: 30 May 2019

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