Children miss out on school because of corruption

When Sok Sopheap could not pay his daily bribe, his secondary school teacher refused to let him attend class.


The teacher demanded he stand for an hour by the door until the class finished.


"It was humiliating, but it happens a lot to students," said the 19-year-old son of a food vendor, graduating years late because of what he calls "high corruption fees".


"We have to pay unfairly for almost everything at school," he complained, including exams, tests and even class time.  


"I don't think the problem is getting better," he said. "Young people in Cambodia have lived with this all our lives and no one has done much to stop it."  


Chronic poverty  


"New teachers often face a many-month delay before they receive their salaries," David Coleman, education chief of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) for Cambodia, told IRIN. "Teachers sometimes supplement their income with a second job. This can affect their own attendance at school, and can put pressure on the amount of time they have to prepare their lessons."  


Teachers' salaries start from US$50 a month, even less than garment factory workers earn, Coleman added.


High oil and gas costs, which have only fallen slightly since their summer peak, despite a global price plummet, could be adding to teachers' salary woes, said Soprach, a primary school teacher in the capital, Phnom Penh.  


"The price I pay for gas every month is almost the same as my salary," Soprach told IRIN. "How am I supposed to survive and feed my family without charging extra?"  


Daily fees of 700 riel (20 cents) do little to drain students of money while keeping his own family afloat with $200 a month, he added.  


Yet others think the tiny costs add up in significant ways, unfairly forcing poorer students out of school.  


A 2007 report by the Cambodian NGO Education Partnership (NEP)

reveals education costs for each child averaged $108 annually, or 9 percent of each family's annual income.


The inability to pay informal fees was the most common reason parents gave for their children dropping out, the report stated.


"When you include informal and formal school costs, and private classes and snacks, many students are paying $2.50 every day," Leng Theavy, education and capacity-building officer for the NGO Education Partnership (NEP), told IRIN.


"That money is a lot because many Cambodians don't make more than $60 a month. In the survey we found the informal fees to be small, but we think the numbers could be much higher now," she added.  


The study also noted that a quarter of parents were unaware that their children were entitled to a free education, a legal right.  


Informal fees are prevalent in Phnom Penh, not in the countryside, the report said, though Theavy said corruption still happened in the provinces.  


"Some teachers in the countryside take large fees too, and often the communes receive documented complaints from parents," she said.  


Tackling corruption


As part of Cambodia's Education Strategic Plan for 2006 to 2010, the Ministry of Education is seeking ways to improve efficiencies to reduce informal fees.  


The establishment of a Teacher Professional Code, ensuring on-time payments and raising teacher salaries are priorities.  


However, Theavy said government had only limited options.  


"The situation is out of the control of the Ministry [of Education] even though they circulated a ban on informal payments," she told IRIN. "Teachers commit this on their own."  


Corruption overall is one of Cambodia's most pressing issues, with anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International scoring the country the 14th most corrupt in the world in its 2008 index, and the third most corrupt country in the Asia-Pacific region.