This morning I was woken up by the unmistakable sounds of a school- children laughing and playing and a traditional school bell. On the streets, I saw lots of children walking along in their smart school uniforms- black skirts or trousers and white shirts. Only a couple of decades ago, this would have been unthinkable. The educated were particularly persecuted under the Khmer Rouge and the country lost approximately 90% if its teachers. These years left behind a generation who had received no basic education and now only 2% of the work force has a degree.
Several years ago, I did an internship in education policy at UNESCO in Bangkok. One of my former colleagues is now working in Phnom Penh and so I went for dinner with her this evening. I was very surprised to learn that education is still not compulsory at any level here. Poorly educated and poorly paid teachers is one of the main problems facing schools in Cambodia. They also notice a lot of boys dropping out of school very early to take on jobs (although in the elite world of university education, men far outnumber women).
This conversation put several of my earlier encounters in a different perspective. Firstly, they show how very exceptional the blind waitress I chatted to last night was. University education is by no means commonplace, despite the benefits it brings both for the individual and society at large. Secondly, that the children I had seen had no obligation go to school, but were headed there because their parents understood the value of education. This, despite the brutal regime, which decades earlier had banned books and murdered most of the society’s intellectuals. Thirdly it made me remember some of the discussions I had been having with micro-entrepreneurs over the course of the day. I had been chatting with a young bookseller who told me that she was selling books to keep her children in education. When I asked her more about her children she proudly brought out a pile of their certificates showing the grades… I couldn’t help but wonder if it was her children playing who had woken me up this morning.