Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in Phnom Penh will have the briefest understanding on the ways of private “international” schools in the Kingdom. These ‘Lidls of learning’ tend to follow the same blueprint. It is unknown whether this is just a natural evolution of how things are in Cambodia, or if there is some shady freemason type group of Sino-Khmer school directors who come together once a week to laugh about poor people and plot more ways to make more money, discuss the best ways to lack morals, whilst sharing tips on avoiding the payment of tax and snubbing labour laws.
For those unaware, here’s a brief synopsis.
1. Have cash, a lot of cash, preferably from some dodgy dealings and stored outside the country.
2. Buy an unsuitable property in an area with lots of competition, Toul Kork springs to mind.
3. Think of an uninspiring, unoriginal name with the vaguest of western connotations (Westminster / Cambridge / Harvard + Gate/Academy / Institute of Excellence / American / International School).
4. Employ your entire unqualified family for senior management/admin roles.
5. Allow your next of kin to fail at micro-managing their way out of a wet paper bag.
6. Photocopy a catalogue of unsuitable, US Christian ‘home schooling’ course books (in black & white) and charge $300 for them (this is called an integrated American curriculum).
7. Hire a ‘fully qualified’ western teaching staff of various amphetamine enthusiasts and drunks from headhunting heavyweights in Walkabout and Soriya Mall.
8. Ensure as much of the poorly structured grammar in any website or brochure contains plenty of spelling mistakes and advertises things the school doesn’t do, or physically have.
9. Develop a variety of innovative ways and use out-of-the-box thinking strategies to screw as much extra cash from the students as possible.
10. Count stacks of money whilst giving the same amount of toss to actual teaching as would be doled out to a parasite infested mongrel that’s lying out of the sun, waiting to die.
Padre Pedro’s probably preaching to the choir on this one. Given that, let’s then look at the other side of the education fence, where ten-dollar-an-hour TEFLers, who complain about class sizes of 25 and dodgy air-con, dare not to tread – each a small government sponsored statelet, more corrupt than the Nevada State Boxing Commission, where a desk fan is a luxury and the number of impoverished small faces regularly runs into half-hundreds in a single sitting.
Welcome to the world of Cambodia’s state schooling system.
Public schooling comes under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (a catchy title, considering 31.6% of the population is under 15 (youth), a couple of kids out of them are pretty good at judo and a 4ft 9 Japanese comic became ‘Cambodian’, only to have his hope at Olympic marathon glory quashed by the IOC.
Last year almost 75% of grade 12 students across the country failed their final exams after an anti-corruption drive, which was deemed rather unsporting, as every other grade 12 student in previous years had lied, bribed and cheated in order to pass with flying colours. Somebody must take the blame, and as usual shit always rolls downhill, from the MoEYaS, to the provincial education offices, to the school directors, to the teachers and perhaps the students themselves.
I’ve chatted at great length with local teachers in the provinces, and have tried to build a clearer picture of what it is like for those on the education frontline in a country that doesn’t exactly value schooling in the same way as neighbouring Thailand or Vietnam, let alone regional heavyweights like Singapore or Korea.
A Job for life
Ever since that wall came down and Hoeneker’s homeboys back in East Berlin stopped sending blank cheques to ‘Nam, the loosely adhered to commie doctrine swiftly crumbled into a free market lovefest, with some socialist principles being retained in certain government departments. State education is one of these and has changed little over the last 20 years.
Well, some things have changed. Teachers no longer teach clandestine English lessons in the open air for half tin cans of rice per student anymore (risking arrest for going off curriculum from the only permitted foreign languages of Vietnamese, Russian and sometimes German). Interestingly, I recently came across a mildewed and mouse eaten old notebook whilst rummaging around the rice shed. Inside, in beautifully penned Roman script was an obviously copied verbatim piece of socialist propaganda, praising Comrade Brezhnev and upholding the ‘principles of brotherhood between Kampuchea, the PR of Vietnam and the USSR’. There was also a hand-copied dictionary translating a page of Khmer/English with the word Marijuana underlined. Nobody knew who wrote it, nor particularly cared.
This Job for Life brings advantages to Cambodian educators – ½ days in class, lots of paid holidays, guaranteed income, a pension at age 60 and plenty of ‘permission’ days (paid) to be sick or go to weddings/funerals. A lack of supply teachers means such absent days lead to classes joining up, with groups of kids numbering over 100 per teacher not uncommon. Whilst this may seem like easy street for some of the more hard-working TEFLERs on a meager $10 an hour (no paid holidays, and certainly no pension), there are a few downsides to a career in the provinces.
The first is that the Job for Life means you stay in exactly the same school, in the same village you are assigned to once getting the qualifications (yes, a 2 year course and certificate in pedagogy is, in theory, required). As this is done on a provincial level (and Cambodian provinces can be rather large and remote), teachers must travel from their home village or take lodgings nearby. For a family orientated people, this can be quite a strain emotionally and financially. Motos, petrol and local taxis cost money, especially when earning less than $5 per day.
There are, of course, ways around pesky rules if the right palms are greased. Permission to move to another closer-to-home school in the same province will cost a few hundred dollars, payable to the old and new school directors and appropriate rubber stamping costs at the ministry. To move between provinces will set a teacher back thousands. Phnom Penh is the most desirable and therefore expensive place to relocate.
Making Ends Meet
It’s hard to survive on Cambodian wages, and nothing comes for free, but where there is a will, there will always be a way. Stories of corrupt teachers selling papers and test answers may not be far from the truth, but seem to be more of a big city problem rather than endemic in the countryside, simply because the rice farming populous of the provinces can barely afford to feed their offspring, let alone pay extra for education. If corruption is too overt then kids won’t go to school making the notion of ‘compulsory’ education is little more than lip-service for aid donations. That’s not to say it doesn’t take place under different guises.
Teachers out in the hicks tend to stick together; loansharking, playing the unfathomable smalltime pyramid scheme of tong tin and setting up their own monthly crisis funds as a kind of insurance scheme. Unlike other workplaces nobody runs off avec la kitty, because that Job for Life system ensures scoundrels will be screwed and can forget that pension.
Those of an entrepreneurial bent will move relatives into the playground to sell cheap pig head soup and bra het to the nippers at break times, and whilst it’s hardly as profitable as Walmart, several hundred kids have to spend their 1000 Riel tucker money somewhere. A nominal rent (of around $5 per month) will be charged for these stalls, which goes straight into the pocket of ……
To reach/upon reaching any level of authority many Cambodians make Sepp Blatter look like St Francis of Assisi. School directors are no exception. It’s hard to judge whether they are ruthless, money grabbing bastards running a school as their personal fiefdom, or traditional Khmer patriarchs keeping an eye out for their flock, or somewhere in between.
Until a year or so ago, all teachers were paid cash in little envelopes, by the director’s office. Then this system was overhauled as every employee was given an Acleda bank card and wages were deposited directly from central government. The result? Shock and delight as 10,000KHR ($2.50) was added to the pay package. Was this an unannounced bonus from the powers-that-be? No chance, only now everyone who previously handled the payroll, from the provincial accountants down to the director was unable to cream a few thousand off each teacher. This unofficial tax works out around 20% of monthly income. Shit, that’s worse than when I worked at PUC and ELfeckin’T.
The MoEYaS technically, at least, provides funds for each pupil attending state schools in order to provide basics like stationary, which works out at 10,000KHR ($2.50) per head annually. International NGO funding is given to some of the more lucky ones. To be on the right side of libel laws, there are no allegations, nor sources quoted, but you don’t have to be Philip Marlowe to figure out where a chunk of this might feasibly end up ‘resting’ and how many syllables there are in misappropriation.
Whilst other colleagues on the staff might get involved in workplace usury, it’s the big cheese who generally goes for it wholesale, offering 10-20% interest loans to staff, keeping that magical Acleda money card as collateral. Whether moral or not, it’s accepted as normal behavior, sometimes gratefully so, especially when granny needs her cataracts seen to, grandpa’s buffalo are sick or if someone simply has to own a Galaxy S5, the director’s off the books money lending service is one of the first points of call.
And finally, a revelation: ghosts do exist in Cambodia. Not the animistic neak ta who haunt the highways and sacred lands, nor the headless aap whom brings terror to the rice paddies. These ghosts can’t even be appeased with incense, boiled pigs heads and fake US currency. And they are
supernatural only in the sense that they don’t really exist, officially: they are government workers whose names appear on government stamped paper, yet have disappeared into private sector thin air. Teachers have a habit of changing names, age and sex in the state system- Nek-Kru Bopha, 28, can actually be Leuk-Kru Piseth, 62 and here’s how they do it…..
Remember the Job for Life in the Same School for Life rule? Well that can be pretty inconvenient for those who might fancy a life someplace else, but still covet the monthly salary from 60 to death that they’ve got the entitlement certificate for. The solution is another of the root problems of the state school system – getting somebody else to work for you, under your name.
The ghost can be as innocuous as a job-swap, with 2 teachers changing places without the red tape and graft of going through semi-official channels. More often than not, the glitzy attractions of working in Phnom Penh’s TEFL academies as a local ‘Englii’ teacher, earning as much as $2 per hour and working 8 a day, are more appealing than $125 a month.
So the absent teacher arranges with the director for a ringer to be found. At best this could be a retired teacher who fancies a bit of extra cash to top up their pension. At worst it can be the director’s idiot relative who needs to pay off a microfinance loan. A percentage of around 20% of the monthly salary, along with a one-off fee, is paid to the director, obviously.
Although the right noises, especially against corruption, are being heard from The MoEYaS, under minister Dr Hang Chuon Naron, himself a holder of a PhD in economics from the old USSR, very little appears to be changing on the ground, at least from the teacher’s view. Until Cambodia starts throwing as much money at improving conditions, training teachers, raising salaries and cutting corruption as it does on the frankly expensive yet worthless military (cheers, China), the next generation is going nowhere fast.
Every month or two the news will feature a story about how the system will be overhauled, cheating in grade 12 being a prime example. The apologist may see Cambodian education as a product of a developing nation, improving slowly after the annihilation of the entire educated class under Pol Pot. The pragmatic might point to a bureaucratic, rotten-to-the-core system staffed by Machiavellian Frank Spencers. Those of a tinfoil hat wearing persuasion could take the view of an uneducated power grabbing elite deliberately keeping a rural underclass in their rightful place at the bottom of the pile, whilst dividing what spoils are left between their clans.
A good education seems possible only with enough money to afford one of the handful of ‘real’ private schools, or slip down the economy of scale towards TEFL factories and learn English with ‘qualified’, ‘semi-qualified’ or ‘totally unsuitable’ native speakers, who may not know what a verb is, but at least exist, and not just on paper.