[Editor’s note: Thida Kheang is a teacher in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Western Australia. He is also an independent research and education consultant, with the majority of his research focusing on education in Cambodia. Kheang worked with UNESCO, particularly on teacher education and technical and vocational education and training. He is a co-author of the book “Primary School Leadership in Cambodia.”]
Q: You just released your book in April 2018, titled “Primary School Leadership in Cambodia.” What are the key issues that you wrote about?
Thida: In my book, I focus on three points. First, I look at the history of education in Cambodia, from the colonial period until 1998. Second, I look at the current education development at the primary school level, especially on the school’s leadership. Lastly, it is the most important point. I discuss some key challenges faced by school rectors in Cambodia and how they address those challenges.
Q: What motivated you to write this book?
Thida: I aim to understand the leadership at the primary school level. I engaged in the policy-making process in Cambodia. Most of the time, the policy-making process is centralized which doesn’t engage sub-national levels. This means the perspective of policy implementers at the sub-national levels are not involved in the policy-making process. I think that my study would contribute to give voice to those implementers’ concerns.
Q: What is the current situation of the education system in Cambodia?
Thida: The current education system is getting better, but there are many challenges which require greater efforts from the government. First, it is an issue of teachers’ capacity. Teachers have been trained in pedagogy, yet they don't have opportunities to strengthen their skills. Second, it is about the primary schools’ rectors. Most primary school reactors have not gone through formal training, especially in leadership and management. Mostly they are selected to do the job. Lastly, it is about the school's material. There is a lack of school material, especially in the rural schools.
Q: Are you concerned about the current state of education in Cambodia?
Thida: I am concerned about the quality of education in Cambodia. The ministry is struggling to improve the quality of education in Cambodia, but the gaps in the quality of education in Cambodia is increasingly becoming wider. I observe that the performance of students in urban areas is better than rural students. The rate of dropouts in rural areas is greater than in urban areas. For instance, in Oddar Meanchey, students quit their school at the 3rd or 4th grade. They work at hotels, and some follow their parents to work in Thailand or other areas.
Q: Has the Cambodian government properly addressed these issues?
Thida: I mentioned earlier that the ministry has struggled to address the issues. But, the solutions are not effective because there are still many issues. I interviewed the primary education department of the ministry of education. They told me that the ministry is working to improve the situation, yet they need more time to address the problem. I think to address the issues, the government needs more time, needs to employ participatory approaches, and needs a strong political will. The issues won’t be addressed without the engagement of the sub-national levels.
Q: You wrote about the political influence on education in Cambodia. Could you please tell me what your argument is?
Thida: I want to talk about the influence of politics at the school level. First, the school’s rector appointment is done through nepotism. I found out in my research that some rectors get their position because they know others, even though they aren’t qualified based on the condition of the ministry of education. Second, I want to talk about the financial contribution to political parties. Some teachers are happy with that, and some are not. Third, I want to talk about party meetings. When the rectors join a political party meeting, they play two roles: leading the school and playing a political role in the school. These lead the discrimination in the schools when the rectors and teachers are coming from different political parties.
Q: You also wrote about the trauma issue after the civil war. How does this issue affect the education system in Cambodia?
Thida: First, when they [rectors] have trauma, they might not manage their schools well. Second, trauma also affects how they think, which eventually affects their work.
Q: What do you think about integrating foreign languages into the education curriculum in Cambodia?
Thida: What I know is that teachers said they don’t have enough capacity to teach English. So, the education program designed by the ministry doesn’t work. I visited some urban and rural areas. There is no teacher who can teach English there.
Q: What are your recommendations to strengthen the primary education system in Cambodia?
Thida: I have three points. First, it is about the policy-making process and policy implementation. The policy-making process in Cambodia is centralized which doesn’t engage the sub-national and local levels. The ministry of education has to integrate those [sub-national and local levels] in the policy-making process. If the ministry isn't able to include them in the process of has not included them in the process, the ministry needs to create a conducive environment to make sure that their voice will be represented in policy. Second, the sub-national and local levels are the policy implementers. The ministry needs to ensure that they are informed about the policy or any updated policies. The sub-national and local levels told me that they are not well informed about a policy that is designed by the ministry. Some sub-national and local levels are trained by the ministry, yet the training is too short and unclear. So, it is hard for them to implement the policy and share with their peers.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.