Hean Chanthorn, 20, a grade 12 student from Chea Sim Santhor Mok High School in Phnom Penh, says he wakes at 4 a.m. every morning to revise. He heads to school at 6 a.m. and stays there until 7:30 in the evening. After dinner, Chanthorn is studying again, going over exercises until 11 p.m.
“I stay at school until 7:30 p.m. because I need to study part-time in the afternoon,” he said. “I have a club to study with my friends in which we teach and explain to each other any subjects or lessons that we do not understand.”
Chanthorn is one of 88,000 young Cambodians set to take their all-important final high school examinations next month. His intense study regimen is not unique—observers and students alike say that a government crackdown last year on widespread cheating in the exam has injected a new urgency among candidates.
“We have to manage our time properly, deciding what to study outside of school [including in private tuition] and what to study at public school. We cannot just start trying to study hard when we reach grade 12, or we will not be successful,” Chanthorn said, adding that he is a strong supporter of the government’s efforts to cut down previously rampant cheating in exams.
Last year, the recently appointed Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron ordered a high-profile effort to stamp out cheating. The country’s Anti-Corruption Unit and observers from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) were called in to stop common practices where copies of exam answer sheets were widely on sale, leading to pass rates of above 80 percent.
Erika Boak, the chief of education for UNICEF in Cambodia, said that this year the agency would not be monitoring the test. “Now that the system is in place to strengthen the integrity of the examination process, UNICEF will not monitor in 2015,” she told VOA Khmer by email.
Although a few cases of cheating were still recorded last year, and cheat sheets—possibly fake ones—were still on sale, the crackdown appeared to have worked when the results were announced. Only 25 percent of students had passed.
The education minister, Hang Choun Naron, told VOA Khmer that the grade 12 national examination this year will be held on August 24-25, and will take place at 149 exam centers across the country. About 10,000 of the students taking the exam would be retaking the test after failing last year, he said.
“The ministry will continues strengthening the regulations this year to have the same standard as the previous one,” he said. “I hope that the number of the students who pass the exam will increase.”
Kri Narith, a grade 12 teacher at the Chea Sim Santhor Mok High School, said that this year most of the students are trying harder in their studies because they expect a hard line to be taken on cheating once again.
“According to my observation, we can see that they come to class more regularly. And they study part-time and create study clubs to study with their friends,” he said.
Bun Seyha, a 19-year-old student from Hun Sen Chompouvon High School, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, also said he has been studying hard since he was in grade 9 and now he is studying even harder in order to pass the up-coming exam.
“I have even been going to Chey Thavy School in Phnom Penh city to study part-time there,” he said.
Other students feel less well prepared, however. Sorn Sreyleab, an 18-year-old student from Chea Sim Santhor Mok High School, said that, until last year, she considered it unnecessary to study hard, since the final exam could be passed by cheating.
“I feel sorry about it and wish I had studied harder,” she said, admitting that she was now not confident about her chances in the upcoming test.
“I have to say that some grade 10 and 11 grade students are still careless with their studies. I am really sorry for them and want to tell them to try to study hard, or you will end up like me.”
Kem Ley, a social analyst and frequent critic of the Cambodian government, commended the ministry’s actions, which were having a genuine impact on students’ laissez faire attitude to their schooling. “Now, they tend to depend on their ability rather than cheat sheets,” he said.
Kem Ley said he hoped that the success of the education minister’s reform efforts could mark a change in the way Cambodia is governed.
“It is a new trend that the people in the ministry can choose eligible and knowledgeable staff to work on this reform,” he said. “It gives us hope when the education minister has real and full power to work on what he thinks should be changed, without political interference.”