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UN Millennium Goal for Education Remains Elusive

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron told VOA Khmer that while Cambodia has made some progress, many children still drop out of school in order to seek work. (Courtesy photo: Hang Chuon Naron)

Cambodia has made some progress in improving its education system in line with its 2015 UN Millennium Goals, but dropout rates remain high, due to endemic poverty and corruption.

Universal literacy and 9th-grade education were the second-highest goal in the development plan, whose progress Cambodia will report to the UN General Assembly in New York in September.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron told VOA Khmer that while Cambodia has made some progress, many children still drop out of school in order to seek work.

“Since 2008, students who study at the secondary level have dropped out of school to go to work in factories, or to migrate to find work inside the country, as well as overseas,” he said.

Cambodia’s struggling education system was thrown into the spotlight last month when US First Lady Michelle Obama made a visit to promote her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. The country has had to lower its education goals for the UN, but it has since met the new ones, in literacy, primary education, and gender equality.

According to the “Cambodia Millennium Development Goals Report,” published in 2014, the goal for graduation rates at the lower secondary level, or grade 9, to be achieved by 2015 was 57 percent. But in the academic year of 2012-2013, the completion rate was at only 40.6 percent, lower than the figure in 2008-2009, which was 49.1 percent. Results from one year to another have been fewer and fewer.

The number of students who graduated from primary school and registered to continue in secondary school was 53.6 percent.

Cambodia has also failed to achieve the targets of increasing the rate of primary education, to 100 percent by 2010, but the education minister is optimistic that in 2015 the target will be achieved.

There are still some children UNICEF says do not get enough attention.

“Children of poor families, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities are left behind in all educational outcomes, underscoring demand, supply and social constraints,” UNICEF said in an annual report in 2013.

Thida Khus, director of Silaka, which tracks the development of the Millennium Development Goals, said part of the problem lies in teachers. They work few hours, and many don’t want to work in the countryside.

“Teachers do not want to teach in rural areas, [where] there are administrative problems and there are not enough teaching materials,” she said. “Therefore, children in rural areas, especially minority children, don’t have enough teachers when they are at school. Most of them are there just a few times and then they quit and will not go back.”

The Millennium Development Goals report for 2014 shows that the provinces with the lowest completion rates were Kratie, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri, Oddar Meanchey and Pailin. The report also acknowledged that the number of primary and secondary schools is not sufficient.

The goal for the literacy rate for those aged 15 to 24 years, of 94.5 percent in 2015, will be met, according to the education minister. But this is a downgrade from its initial target of 100 percent by 2015.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, says the government figures are inflated.

“The rate of school dropout is still high,” he said. “If we want to be successful in education or education for all we need to reduce poverty. And secondly, we need to tackle corruption.”

Rong Chhun also stressed that families decide to force their children to leave school at a young age, due in part to a poor job market for graduates. This dissuades them from pushing their children to study.

“Their parents see other graduates who are unemployed, or if luckier, with underpaid jobs; therefore, they are forced to take their children out of school to find work to earn more income for their families,” he said.

Still, Cambodia has succeeded in making the ration of girls and boys equal at the primary and secondary levels. For the long-term strategy in the country beyond 2015, the government will focus on increasing reading at the elementary level, Hang Chuon Naron said.

“If students can read at the primary school level, they have a good foundation, which means they definitely won’t drop out,” he said.

Another strategy is to reduce the number of students who enroll at an older age. The government will encourage students to enroll in pre-school and to provide scholarships and nutrition to poor children.