“We don’t allow students to cheat here, but…”

education for profit

Tim LaRocco examines the for-profit private education sector in Cambodia and finds a system not fit for purpose:

“We don’t allow the students to cheat here,” the head teacher of a well-known language school in Phnom Penh explained to me in his office one afternoon last year. “But in this situation, I want you to consider her.”

The her in question was Sreyleak, the 14-year old sitting in the folding chair next to me, and a student of mine in a beginner level English class. I had turned her over the previous day for the transgression of snapping a photo of an exam with her phone, which she would have doubtlessly sent to her friends in the next class. “Consider her” was apparently the head teacher’s way of directing me not to press for any further punitive consequences. I didn’t have to wonder why after witnessing the young girl’s father remonstrating with my boss minutes before my sit down with him.

Despite “no cheating” signs proliferating throughout the classrooms, the deterrence model is undermined when parents can simply threaten to end their child’s matriculation. Less students means less tuition money in the pockets of the school’s owners, and so the decision is a simple one: the short-term goal of running an exceedingly profitable business supersedes the administering of a respectable and structured learning environment. This brief anecdote encapsulates the principal problem with Cambodia’s burgeoning for-profit language schools.

No one should be under any illusions that Cambodia’s educational system would or could be run as a flawless operation in light of the country’s history. However, despite the lack of funding of and rampant corruption in Khmer schools, which allow students to purchase clean attendance records and exam questions and answers, I sensed a growing demand for better quality instruction amongst many students. “English-language learning in Cambodia is the ‘key to prosperity,” journalist Sally McLaren posited nearly a decade and a half ago. “Cambodians can see themselves having a better lifestyle if they have English education.”

Still, Phnom Penh’s language schools – not to be conflated with proper international schools – deserve space for scrutiny and criticism in the discourse here because many expats get their first jobs from these institutions. That is how I got my start.


The first red flag popped up the first day on the job. That was when I was inundated with a class of 33 students squeezed into a room the size of a Khmer-styled apartment. I even had the foresight to ask about the student-to-teacher ratio during my interview the week prior and was assured by the Director of Studies that 20 students was typically the maximum. However, in the eight months working for this particular school, I seldom taught a class that had fewer than 20 students. After all, why pay another teacher $10/hour for an additional class when you can simply cram kids into mine? The individualized attention an educator should be giving to his or her pupils is nigh impossible in such an environment.

And then there was survey day. If you have ever taught at a language school in Cambodia, then you have probably experienced survey day and are aware of its significance. My class was interrupted by a solemn-faced administrator conscious of the fact that the next fifteen minutes would probably determine my future employment prospects with the school. As I left the room, the students were given a questionnaire – a Khmer take on Rate My Professors – about their teacher on everything from how fast I spoke to my personal hygiene. The two most important questions being do you like your teacher?, and do you want to study with your teacher next term?

The empirical data conducted on this rather obscure topic has concluded that there are myriad flaws with the student-based teacher evaluation system in Cambodia in general, to say nothing of the for-profit language school complex. Despite that, negative responses from 25% of the class or more at this particular school could be cause for review and possibly dismissal. At the very least, such an unfavorable response could result in a reduction of teaching hours the next term. Some of my colleagues began focusing most of their lessons around keeping the students entertained with mindless nonsense rather than on more pertinent subject matters. “When survey time comes around, just play games all week,” one Filipino teacher advised me.

It’s worth noting that the curriculum in Cambodian language school is based around learning English as a foreign language (EFL), rather than as a second language (ESL), the former being used in countries where English is not spoken by the majority. This framework leads to motivational problems amongst Cambodian students.

Moreover, there is apprehension on the part of administrators to raise standards due to the belief that students would simply transfer to less demanding schools. It also isn’t exactly inspiring to the nation’s youth when their English school produces advertisement material with enough mistakes to devote an entire hour-long class to correcting them. And yes, that really happened.

This is unfortunately part and parcel of the language school culture and can explain the rueful looks you might get from teachers who truly care when you ask about their job at these places.

It was certainly frustrating for me that many students, the majority coming from well-off families, cared more about the latest IPhone than my lesson. But in the end I learned not to take the classes too seriously myself and, ironically, my students tended to absorb more information that way as a result. In a way, that’s quite the poignant summation of the language school paradigm, but also a sad reflection on it as well.

Tim LaRocco

12 thoughts on ““We don’t allow students to cheat here, but…”

  1. Vic Matthews Reply

    The curious thing is that at least in the cities Cambodian English speakers outperform their peers in neighboring Thailand but also in developed countries like Japan and South Korea. There are very many young Cambodians in places like Phnom Penh who are functionally proficient in English while this is not nearly the case in places like Bangkok, Osaka or Seoul (based on my experience). The point is not to dispute the main argument but to suggest that maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem.

  2. Ryoon Reply

    “The curious thing is that at least in the cities Cambodian English speakers outperform their peers in neighboring Thailand but also in developed countries like Japan and South Korea.”

    Nothing strange there this is due to a single factor. The size of the population. With 12 million people ( against 100 million for Thailand and Japan) english is much more present and useful. Simply speaking there is far fewer translation ( movie, video game, books, ect) and the local production is relatively modest (once again compare to the movie production of Japan and Korea or even Thailand). As a result as soon as you want to consume cultural goods you are exposed to english.
    Your work opportunities with English are also more important compared to an important population country. In proportion more job will require english in Cambodia not necessary for communicating with foreigner but for formation purpose for example. You can spend your life in Thailand , Japan or Korea without having to understand one word of english and without this having an impact on your professional life, not so true in Cambodia

  3. Falcon Randwick Reply

    “Less students means less tuition money in the pockets of the school’s owners”. Hate to be a grammar Nazi but an English teacher should understand, and demonstrate, the distinction between less and fewer…

    • RightLegDave Reply

      Yes, it obviously should have read “Less students means fewer money…”

  4. pedro Reply

    At a crappy school in BTB, where teachers were hounded into ‘special monthly tests’, the subject of blatant cheating was brought up at one of the unpaid ‘truth and reeducation’ meetings.

    The head of dep. came out with this howler

    ‘If our students cheat, it proves they are smart, because stupid students wouldn’t think to cheat’

    The name of this illustrious educator? Mr. Tom Chheat.

  5. Louise Belhavel Reply

    How about the Cambodian doctors and nurses these days?

    A decade ago, degree-buying was standard practice in medical schools in Cambodia, so one can assume that a Cambodian doctor in his/her mid-thirties probably bought a degree just like he or she was buying a kilogram of rice.

    What is the case today?

  6. Wake up Reply

    If they lied to you, you should quit. If everyone did that, then things might change.

    • Tim Reply

      Even if that sort of collective action were possible, which it is not, the current system allows the owners of the school to pick from a permanent pool of unemployed or underemployed teachers or even just backpackers who would be willing to work for meal $, standards be damned. Your argument is the same one proffered by advocated of a failed neoliberal model in Western states: if you don’t like your job for whatever reason, just quit. That alternative is simply not feasible for many people anymore.

  7. anoymous Reply

    If they carry on cheating in test, then they should not be given any test or certificate, until further notice.

    • andy Reply

      What they get is a certificate accredited by a Cambodian school or university which, due to the endemic cheating, has no credibility outside Cambodia and very little inside Cambodia. The net effect of rampant cheating is that every student is assumed to have bought their qualifications. This is incredibly harsh on the decent honest ones, but it’s the unfortunate reality. The solution is to introduce tests that are internationally accredited and respected, administered by outside agencies. This is starting to happen. Schools that won’t subscribe to such a system will show themselves up as complicit in corruption and will sink as the public and employers favour the non-corrupt system.

  8. Kevin Oneill Reply

    I especially liked his comments regarding the tyrannical power of some of these vindictive spoiled brats. I got fired a week into an assignment
    Because one mob of lazy little snots complained that they could not understand my English. Now, I know I haven’t begun stuttering or lisping lately. They understood me perfectly, but just didn’t like me making them shut off their cellphones, breaking up their little cliques and having them do a little actual English work!

  9. Richard Stetzel Reply

    I taught at one of the best schools in Phnom Penh 2 years ago. I resigned due to lying, cheating and stealing which the admin had no problems with. They were shocked when I resigned, citing that they were ok with lying to me, cheating by rigging grades for tuition money and stealing by cutting foreign teacher pay for 4 weeks a year.
    Next I taught a year in Siem Reap at a big International School. They rigged grades also like little prostitutes to protect their personal income. Education is second to the money here. Ethics are absent.
    I pity the children who will not get an education and the deluded parents who think they are really helping their children.
    Cheating is common here in all aspects of life. They cannot even drive on the proper and legal side of the road!

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