Inclusive education in Cambodia

Education in Cambodia

During the Christmas holiday of 2016-2017, I visited Cambodia. I was curious whether inclusion would be a theme there also and was searching for an answer to the question whether obligatory education guarantees an education for everyone. In order to get a good perspective on the educational system, we have to take into account the history of Cambodia, a country which is recuperating from war. When you talk to people − even though there is much more than just these horrible years − especially the period of the Khmer Rouge stands out for them: from 1975 until January 1979.


Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with king Norodom Sihamoni as head of state. Hun Sen is prime-minister of the country. He has been in office since 1985.

Until 1350, Cambodia was part of the Khmer Empire. This empire stretched across large parts of South-east Asia. Apart from Cambodia, also modern-day Vietnam, Laos and Thailand were part of it. From the middle of the fifteenth century until the arrival of the French in 1863, the country knew many weak leaders. This led to considerable losses of land and wealth. The glory of the Khmer Era has since been a thing of the past.

Between August 1863 and November 1953, Cambodia was ruled by France, first as part of the French protectorate and as of November 8, 1949 within the association with France. On November 9, 1953 the independence of Cambodia was declared by king Norodom Sihanouk, but political unrest remained. The Vietnam War (1970-1975) took a heavy toll on Cambodia. In October 1970, Sihanouk was deposed by general Lon Nol, who declared the Khmer Republic.

In 1975, the government of Lon Nol was overthrown by the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. He founded the Democratic Kampuchea. During his reign of terror, approximately twenty-five per cent of the entire population were killed.

The infamous torture-prison S-21 used to be a secondary school

Mass-graves of the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek 

In 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. They overthrew the regime of Pol Pot on January 7, 1979. After that, the country was thrown into a year-long civil war. De last guerrillero’s of the Khmer Rouge (in the jungle of the border with Vietnam) surrendered in the 1990’s.

From 1991 until 1993, the United Nations (UNTAC) governed the country. The first democratic elections were held in 1993. Until the coronation of the current king, Sihamoni, in 2004, there was unrest in Cambodia, and the country to this day still knows no real democracy. The bonds between the government and Vietnam are tight. De king has a Vietnamese father and the president is from Vietnam.


There is much pressure on the Cambodian government to organize a decent educational system. The country still suffers from the effects of the years of the Khmer Rouge. Over two of the eight million inhabitants perished as a result of the collective deportation of city-dwellers to the country, executions, hunger and disease.

The Khmer Rouge conducted a reign of terror in which women, children and those with a higher education were not spared. This was to make sure there were no witnesses to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. One of the results of the extermination is a total lack of any educational tradition. There is no intellectual elite, and artists and teachers were also murdered during the years of Pol Pot. It is still difficult to find ways to fill this gap in the educational level of the population as a whole. Approximately sixty-five per cent of the population are illiterate, of which seventy-eight per cent female. Over forty per cent of the population are under fourteen years of age.

At least three thousand villages do not have a school. In some villages, children receive a form of education in improvised places. In villages were the government did organize schools, little or no means and materials are available. Another problem is that the buildings are too small to accommodate all the children.

Just two in every five Cambodians over twenty-five finished an education. Many children do not go to school whatsoever. Parents do not see the use of an education and need their children to work.

The amount of private and international schools is rising, which does not contribute to an adequate general education for all children, because good teachers leave the municipal schools to teach at private schools, where the pay is much higher.

Schoolmaterialen in Cambodja zijn schaars
Schoolmaterialen in Cambodja zijn schaars

School materials are rare in Cambodia


The government has a very limited budget for education. It is important therefore to spend the available funds efficiently. That is why local school-boards are responsible for the budget. Because of this, it is possible to determine what is needed per province. When in need of improvements, the school-boards apply for funds with their own province, which divides the funds over the different boards.

The priority first and foremost lies with getting children to go to school. In this, inclusion goes without saying. Many different organizations assist in improving the educational system in Cambodia. I visited a ‘plan school’, and VSO, Unicef, the ASML Foundation and DFID also make a contribution. One of the schools I visited is supported by Japan, which sends Japanese students to assist.

Because of the lack of money, there is a significant shortage of means. I visited a school that did have chairs, but no desks, and I was in a school where the parents had to buy a washable writing-board for their children because notebooks were not available. The differences between the schools are significant.

One of the reasons that education in Cambodia is substandard is the lack of materials. Apart from that, education is very basic and focuses on writing and calculus, and the children do not learn much about the history of the country. 

Onderwijs in Cambodja

Classroom in the area of Siem Reap


All children ought to go to school, but even though a lot of them do not attend, there is a shortage of spaces to teach in. I visited a school with three thousand registered pupils, who attended school in two shifts. The first group went from 09.00 a.m. until 01.00 p.m., and the other from 01.00 p.m. until 05.00 p.m. Schools are open from Monday to Saturday inclusive. The classrooms are very crowded; thirty to fifty pupils per classroom is standard. All headmasters I spoke to, told me that the shortage of teachers is a considerable problem. This leads to an additional problem, which they are not happy with and about which they would rather not talk. The parents I spoke to, however, do not hesitate to talk about it once they see that you know what it is: corruption. Children get a school report four times a year. In it, parents regularly find a note from the teacher, stating that payment is expected in order to get good grades. Of course the headmaster does not want this. He calls his teachers to account, but when they keep denying, it is very hard to do anything against it.

The Pupils

Over all, people in Cambodia are very friendly and quick to laugh. Children are very spontaneous. They come running to you and ask in English how you are, who you are, where you are from and how old you are. This approach is a nice surprise when you walk into the school, and for a moment you are under the impression that their education is of a high standard. When, however, you try to talk to them about anything that deviates from the standard sentences they memorized, you immediately notice that they are far less proficient than you thought at first.

Children in Cambodia wear blue and white clothing. Everyone wears a white shirt, for boys combined with a blue pair of trousers, for girls with a blue skirt. In many schools, however, this is not a uniform. Thus, there are many differences, but always within the frame of blue and white.

When I visited a school near Lake Tonlé Sap, tourists had just distributed toothbrushes and toothpaste. A very useful gift, if you see the average state the teeth of the children are in.

In Conclusion

Cambodia is a country with many possibilities, but as a developing country it is very vulnerable. Relations between Vietnam and Cambodia are complicated. One of the vicepresidents of the current government used to be part of the regime of Pol Pot. Elections so far did not bring any change in this situation, mainly, it seems, because of the total lack of knowledge about the history of the country most people have. Especially the older generation strongly feels that they were liberated from Pol Pot by the Vietnamese. Despite the fact that the country now formally is a democracy, the form of government still strongly resembles a dictatorship.

Apart from Vietnam, China is a power to be reckoned with in Cambodia. China invests a lot of money in buildings in Cambodia. This is done in consultation with the Cambodian government and ensures a lot of employment on the short run. The only question is: who needs all those buildings?

The educational system in Cambodia still has a long way to go. Progress must be made with very limited means. Many organizations are willing to help, however. A lot of schools have sponsor-contracts in order to get more means. Many children in Cambodia do not go to school. It would be a huge step if more children went to school, and if parents would realize that education and development will not only help their children, but the entire nation.