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The Education System in Cambodia: History and Now

My perception of Cambodia has always been, I admit, limited. I have done research about the Vietnam war and South Asia but I have never know that much about Cambodia expect for the fact that it is in South East Asia. I have been following an American woman (Tracy Settler) who gave up her life in America to build a school in Kep, Cambodia (Sala Monkey Primary School) and I have been following her now for some years. I recently have added her as a beneficiary to my nonprofit organization, Support Education Worldwide. Even though I have been following her for probably three years now and the work she does with her school I still had no idea until looking into the history of Cambodia how horrific the history there has been, not only horrific but devastating for the entire country.

Education is poorly funded in Cambodia. Most of the government budget goes to the military and security. Also, children drop out of school often. According to UNICEF 65-70% of all Cambodian children started school but many repeated first grade two to three times and then dropped out by second grade. The educational system in Cambodia is not only poorly funded but broken as well. This is mainly due to years of suffering and over 1 million (some estimate 2 million) Cambodians were killed or starved to death under the Khmer Rouge Reign.

The Killing Fields

Wheeler & Miller (1990) discuss how this has impacted the country in “Cambodia’s education system struggles to reverse years of war and suffering”. During the 1970’s the communist party at the time executed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals. This was because the political party at the time was extreme in their ideologies. The anti intellectualism was used by a totalitarian dictatorship to kill most of the academics of Cambodia at the time.

If you ever travel to Cambodia or do any research about Cambodia you will come across the term “killing fields”, these are sites scattered throughout Cambodia where collectively 1 to 2 million people were executed. It is estimated that 96% of those executed where college students. This mass genocide and intellectual cleansing was accompanied by the mass destruction of books, newspapers, magazines, & historical Buddhist Texts. The country’s Buddhist monasteries, repositories of Kmer history and tradition were also destroyed. Over 14,000 Cambodian monks were also killed during this time.

The devastation is still affecting the country on a massive and deep scale

Economic Disparity

So, let’s talk about how economic disparity & lack of education (mainly as a result of this devastation) continues to affect children in Cambodia today. Hong, Mishra & Michael (2007) talk about children’s mortality rates in Cambodia and how it relates to economic disparity in “Economic Disparity and Child Survival in Cambodia”. They have found through studies of thousands of children in Cambodia that children in the bottom 40% poorest households were twice as likely to die then their rich counterparts who are in the top 20% richest households.

Interestingly other studies have shown that infant & child mortality are also linked to a mother’s education, her age when giving birth, delivery status, health status, father’s education & employment, household income, safe sources of drinking water, sanitation; and slum and rural residence. Basically the health and well being of the parents directly affects their children and their children’s mortality rate. Considering that during the Khmer Rouge Reign most intellectuals were wiped out that means that the entire country had to start over again from the beginning. Also, all of their history and culture was wiped out as well. It has been fifty years but still the country struggles a great deal in regards to having lack of resources for the most disadvantaged, a broken education system and not enough funds allocated to education.

Child Labor & Education

You may be thinking to yourself by now, “It has been fifty years since that intellectual genocide, hasn’t Cambodia made any progress since then?” The truth is that, they have and they haven’t. According to Kluttz (2015) in “Reevaluating the relationship between education and child labour using the capabilities approach: Policy and implications for inequality in Cambodia”, Cambodia has experienced rapid growth in the past two decades but the economic disparity between the rich and the poor is widening. Also, it’s not just income differences that have had an impact if children go to school or not. It should be said that many poor children in Cambodia end up in child labor and some may automatically assume that it is because of income only but that is not the whole truth. It also has to do with opportunity.

It is because of lack of opportunities and education that children in Cambodia end up in child labor. Their parents don’t see educational options for them so they have them do labor and those that are the poorest of course cannot afford to send their children to school. There are not enough schools because the government allocates much of the funds to military. So, education and supporting those in Cambodia, like Tracy Settler, who are helping provide education to the most disadvantaged is helping save children from labor, child marriage, illiteracy, social exclusion and more.


When children are getting a good education that also prepares them to raise the next generation. As stated earlier, studies have shown that educated mothers and fathers have a direct impact on their children. These children will someday become the mothers and fathers of the next generation. If we want to see peace and prosperity in the world then we must educate today’s children and Cambodia is one of those countries that need it most.



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