Behind the voices of students, the noise of the sea spread over high grass, the classroom and a nearby pagoda. Surrounded by beaches and mountain forest and imbued with fresh air, Prek Svay, one of only five primary schools on the island of Koh Rong, would seem like an ideal place to study. Unfortunately, the island’s education system is poor.
The schools here in fact lack both teachers and students. Teachers are hard to find, and students are hard to keep.
Third-grade teacher Pho Sokhem, 26, said he spent $200 of his own money to build a small hut on the school grounds, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son. Other teachers live in the houses of local officials and villagers, or with monks.
“I spent my own money to buy timbers and peeled-skin trees to build a hut,” Pho Sokhem said. “That is my hut.” He pointed to a small cottage. “Some [teachers] stay at the pagoda and some stay and eat with me.”
Ing Bunna, deputy chief of Sihanoukville’s education department, said the government had asked local authorities to put up some teachers, free of charge, because it lacked the money to build them accommodation. The government also pays a 40,000 riel allowance, about $10, to supplement the 200,000 riel wage, about $50 a month.
Teachers on this island say the 40,000 riel is not enough to assuage the loneliness of the outpost, where some live without the company of family and must spend a lot of money to visit the mainland.
“It is hard to live with little salary here,” said Set Tik, 26, another teacher. “We live far away from home. The transportation cost to visit home is expensive. The food here is expensive. I stay with a nun, and we share meals.”
Schools are up to 40 kilometers apart. Some are inaccessible by roads. The isolation has caused some teachers to renege on their contracts, Ing Bunna said. It has also made it impossible to establish a secondary school. For that, students must travel to Sihanoukville or beyond.
If it is hard to keep teachers here, it is also hard to keep students. Parents often pull their children out of school in order to help them make a living.
Teachers on the island estimated 35 percent of students quit school in 2007, a year when there were only 374 to start with.
“I wish I could have studied as high as possible,” said Kou Moykea, 18, who was among those who quit last year. “But my parents forced me to help them farm and fish, and baby-sit besides.”