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A Beacon of Hope: Overcoming Corruption in Cambodian Schools

A Beacon of Hope: Overcoming Corruption in Cambodian Schools

Imagine you're a 15 year old girl growing up in Kampong Cham. You're lucky that your parents have prioritised your education when they could have really used your help at home or the extra income you could have earned at the rubber and garment factories. You attend public classes in the morning, where your teachers often don't show up, and intentionally avoid teaching you what you need to know to pass your exams. They save this teaching for the afternoon classes.

The catch? These are 'private classes' that you and your family need to cough up an informal fee if you want to attend these classes. This may only cost 1000 Riel (about 25 cents) per lesson, but it all adds up. And for your family, like many families across Cambodia, who are working incredibly hard just to keep food on the table, pay for your uniform, bag and other school materials, 1000 Riel a class is just too much.

You're a pretty switched on kid though, and you're pretty sure you know the right answers to questions on the tests because you've been doing your own learning at the small library at your school. This doesn't matter though because you get failed anyway. Your teacher needs to send a message, and can't allow other students to think that they don't need to be paying them informal fees. Perhaps it would be better to support your family by working at the factories.

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Corruption is normalised for young people in Cambodia as soon as they start primary school. It runs right up the chain through teachers, headmasters, school boards, provincial education authorities, and the national government. It is young people, and particularly those from poor backgrounds that suffer the most.

Oaktree has worked with Kampuchean Action for Primary Education (KAPE) on the Beacon Schools Initiative (BSI) project since 2011, with the first phase of the project costing approximately 450,000 USD. Education is a fundamental human right, and is a necessary precondition to the exercise of all other rights. According to the Cambodian Constitution, education is technically free: "the State shall provide primary and secondary education to all citizens in public schools" (Article 68). In practice though, education is far from free and accessible to all citizens.

The BSI model is challenging this status quo, and the whole of Cambodia is feeling the shock waves. There are some who don't like this change and who are actively fighting to undermine it. But it is just not acceptable for schools to systematically disadvantage the poorest in a community and to deny young people their right to education, forcing them into work, exploitation and endlessly perpetuating poverty cycles.

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BSI provides a new regulatory framework that holds teachers, headmasters and school boards to account. The idea is to completely eradicate informal fees and private classes in schools by providing alternative incentives for teachers, like increased salaries, professional development opportunities and fostering pride and commitment to quality teaching. Middle-income parents are asked for voluntary financial contributions to the school (far less than the total cost of informal fees) to cover these added costs, and low-income families can have their children access quality education for the whole day for free.

This model underpins the Demonstration School, which five years ago was about to be shut down, to be one of the highest performing schools in Cambodia, a beacon of hope for the future of education in Cambodia. This transformed school is now producing some of the best students and teachers in Cambodia, and provides thousands of young people with quality education, including those who would otherwise be denied this fundamental right.

Oaktree is committed to standing with Kampuchean Action for Primary Education (KAPE)as they face this new challenge. We are proud that we are an organisation that can take calculated risks to support initiatives that have huge, systemic and sustainable impacts. Initiatives that fight poverty and correct the injustice of widespread denial of young people's fundamental right to education.

Written by Geordie Fung

Head of International Engagement, Oaktree.

You can support the BSI project and other initiatives by donating to Oaktree here.