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FEATURE STORYMarch 21, 2023

Education in Cambodia — from Punishment to Encouragement


Sia Na, teacher at 28 Makara Highschool in Siem Reap province, is helping student to read.


  • The World Bank-financed Cambodia Secondary Education Improvement Project has improved secondary education by strengthening school-based management, upgrading teacher qualifications, and constructing and renovating classrooms.
  • The project has directly benefitted almost 70,000 students of which 34,600 are females, in 100 targeted schools. More than 2,000 teachers and almost 600 school administrators have completed their training.
  • Based on this success, the Bank has approved a General Education Improvement Project to cover 1,633 more schools.

“In the old days, we used to punish students by making them copy texts a hundred times,” recalls Ly Yanny, Principal of Sam Pan Secondary School in Kandal province. “We wouldn’t let them into school if they were late, and would scold them if they misbehaved. We didn’t help students continue their studies, but rather encouraged them to drop out if they did not perform or behave well.”

Yanny has served as a teacher and school principal for over 30 years. In the past, he applied strict methods in an attempt to make students good enough to compete with pupils from other schools, locally and nationwide. This approach however led to a decrease in the number of students over the years, falling from about 500 to 240 pupils, as families sent their children to other schools nearby. Yanny realized that if the numbers continued to drop, his school would be at risk of closure. He sought advice from other schools, which were supported by the World Bank’s Secondary Education Improvement Project.

The advice he received? Rather than punishing the students, “engage them more in teaching and learning activities, understand their living conditions, work with parents and the community to better support them, and improve the quality of teaching and the school environment to ensure that children want to come to school”. The advice has helped the school attract its students back, with the number of new enrollments climbing to about a hundred this year. 

Phon Chanthoern, a teacher of history and geography at Prak Taten High School, also used punishment with students, believing this would make them study harder and pay more attention to her teaching. But it did not produce the results that she wished. She came to realize that whenever she did this, students tried to listen but were frightened. They could not concentrate on their lessons.

Two years ago, Chanthoern started to use a student-centered teaching method. Rather than lecturing the class, she gave her students topics to discuss in groups, and then present to the class. She also now begins her classes by asking students — who often come from poor families — to share their situations. This new way of teaching helps them learn more and enjoy the class, and also builds better relations between students and teachers.  

One of the education project’s priorities was to reduce the number of kids dropping out of school by supporting students from poor families or abusive households. Ngiem Sidara, Principal of Hun Sen Veal Rinh High School in Sihanouk province, goes with his teachers to the homes of students who miss school often or have poor grades, to identify the root causes of these problems. He says that understanding the conditions of students with difficulties is very important. Some parents do not want their children to go to school because they need them to help earn money, while some students experience abuse at home.

“Sometimes we spend a long time persuading parents, particularly in abusive families, to let their children go back to school,” he said. “We tell them that if they want their children to be better off, they should allow them to continue their studies. Then usually, they agree. But in some cases, we need to bring along the village or community chief or a monk to talk with their parents before we are able to get the kids back to school.”

Yanny, Sidara and Chanthoern are among nearly 600 heads of schools and more than 2,200 teachers who attended Leadership and Teacher Upgrading Programs under the project. These programs have not only changed teaching and learning practices, but also the way schools are run.

The project has directly benefitted almost 70,000 students of which more than 34,600 are females in 100 targeted schools. Like Sam Pan Secondary School, the project has also spillover to over 387,000 students in non-targeted primary and secondary schools

These sub-committees are the eyes, ears and veins of the school management committee. Without them, we would find it difficult to improve the quality of our students and school management.
Chheang Leanghou
Vice Principal of Hun Sen Sampov Poun High School in Kandal province

Cambodia Secondary Education Improvement Project

Start-of-year and monthly tests

To improve the quality of student learning, the project required target schools to conduct diagnostic tests at the beginning of the school year and regular monthly tests to measure the students’ academic levels. Using the results of these tests, the schools group students by academic competence to form their classes. Students with lower grades are given extra study hours so they can try to reach the higher grades.

Khon Sokha, Acting Principal of Koh Dach High School in Phnom Penh, said that to help the students who fall behind, the school assigns teachers to provide extra classes, with those teachers receiving financial incentives for their efforts. Financial incentives are voluntarily paid by the community. A student taking extra classes in six subjects will pay about 30,000 riel ($7.50) per month — a fraction of the cost of a private tutor.

Teachers are required to submit teaching plans for each class, and students are trained to record teaching hours, absence, lateness and performance of their teachers on a weekly basis. The school management committee verifies these records before paying the teachers. This approach wins the trust and support of parents and communities.

Mok Bora, the Principal of Prek Dom Bouk High School, says these tests are extremely valuable, comparing them to examinations made by a doctor to diagnose a patient’s illness before prescribing medicine. “The results from these tests help the school and community design an effective teaching plan. With the data they provide, we can give the right medicine, just like a doctor does with patients,” he explains.

The monthly tests also help students to prepare for national exams at the end of school year, with the tests designed and conducted according to national standards.


 Nop Kunthea, student at Hun Sen Veal Rinh Highschool, teaches her classmates   

Strong Community Engagement

One of the project’s main objectives was to actively involve communities in their kids’ education. The school management committee in each target school include community representatives and local authorities. These committees support the school management by raising money to improve infrastructure, such as by purchasing solar panels for lighting, paving the grounds, and gardening. The committees also support poor students and ensure that families are engaged in the testing process to ensure transparency and efficiency.

Mok Dara appreciates the support of his school management committee. He says that through its work, the community contributes 20-50 million riel ($5,000-$12,000) per year to improve school infrastructure and cover school operating costs, including the cost of regular testing.

Chheang Leanghour, a Vice Principal of Hun Sen Sampov Poun High School in Kandal province, explains that in his school, the school management committee set up a sub-committee for each class. These sub-committees support classroom improvement, including through decoration and furniture, and help students who face difficulties and or are at risk of dropping out.

“These sub-committees are the eyes, ears and veins of the school management committee”, he says. “Without them, we would find it difficult to improve the quality of our students and school management.”

These are all part of the benefits brought by the Secondary Education Improvement Project, reckons Chheang. “Since our school joined this project, our students’ results have improved greatly. He notes that around 80 percent of students now pass grade 12, up from 50 percent in the past, while the national pass rate has remained steady at around 65 percent.


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