This traditional education system was originally changed by the French occupation of Cambodia in 1863 before their eventual withdrawal in 1953. The French left a more formal, western style education system which was later developed and combined with the traditional system to suit the Khmer people in the independence period circa 1960.
The Khmer Rouge and the civil wars that followed in the 1970’s would prove to be the most infamous and horrific time in Cambodia’s history. During this time a functional and productive education system that was the result of hundreds of years of fine tuning would be virtually destroyed much like the rest of the country and its people.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s the education system would be reconstructed from virtually zero and is gradually being developed and improved all the way up to the current day.
The formal education structure of Cambodia was reformed in 1996 and, at time of writing in 2018, there are many signs of improvement in the state and private education systems.
The state education system is made up of a 6 years + 3 years + 3 years program. This means that it takes 12 years to complete the Cambodian state education and divides up as 6 years spent at primary level (grade 1 to 6) and 6 years for secondary education (grade 7 to 12).
The secondary education consists of two stages of three years for lower (grade 7-9) and upper (grade 10-12) secondary school. This is currently the basic requirement in Cambodia does not include tertiary education at the kindergarten ages from between 3 and 9 years and university courses that vary from 4 to 6 years.
Two other important components of the Cambodian educational system is teacher training education. This allows graduated students that have successfully completed grade 12 to enroll on teaching training programs. The teacher training colleges and centres can be found both provincially and in the major Cambodian cities.
Currently, the educational system is run by the Cambodian state, but private education exists at all levels and is run by private companies. There are many private schools now offering pre-school education and general education programs, mainly in the cities but with an ever increasing presence in the provinces also.
Many of the privately run schools are often operated by ethnic and religious expatriates including Chinese, French, English and Vietnamese. Private higher education is accessible mainly in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap but it is also available in some of the provinces of Cambodia.
Cambodian general education is based on a national school curriculum that consists of two main parts: basic education and upper secondary education.
The basic education curriculum is divided into three cycles with three years in each. The first cycle (grade 1-3) consists of 27-30 lessons per week lasting 40 minutes which are allocated to the five main subjects; Khmer, maths, science and social studies, physical education and local life skills program.
The second cycle (grade 4-6) has the same number of lessons but is slightly different in the amount of time studied for each particular subject with more emphasis on Khmer, maths and social sciences.
The third cycle (grade 7-9) consists of 32-35 lessons which are split between the 7 major subjects listed above with the addition of 4 lessons per week in a foreign language with a choice of English or French.
The upper secondary education curriculum consists of two different phases. The first phase (grade 10) is identical to the third cycle of primary education and the second phase (grade 11-12) has two main parts to the curriculum:
The compulsory phase involves four major subjects with different numbers of lessons divided between the subjects per week: Khmer literature, physical and health education, sports science, foreign language and basic or advanced mathematics.
The electives part includes three major subjects covering four or five sub-subjects with four lessons allocated per week for each one.
Despite Cambodia’s turbulent recent history, higher education is available at several universities and faculties. These include the Royal University of Phnom Phen, the Royal Agricultural University, the Royal University of Fine Arts, and various Faculties of Medicine, of Law and Economics, and of Business.
The Higher Technical Institute of Soviet-Khmer Friendship has been rebranded the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, while the Australian-funded Maharishi Vedic University functions in the far eastern Prey Veng Province.
The Royal University of Phnom Phen is Cambodia’s oldest university having been founded in 1960 by the Cambodian King with French money. It was reopened in 1998, and now approximately 4,000 students study Khmer literature, biology, chemistry, computer science, geography, mathematics, philosophy, psychology and sociology there.
The American University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia has partnered with the University of Arizona to offer Cambodian students a chance at a first-rate American style tertiary education. As of September 2016, students attending AUPP are now able to take courses from the University of Arizona and earn a dual degree from the two schools in undergraduate and master’s degrees in a range of subjects.
As we now know, Cambodia has drastically improved overall access to basic education, however, many children who are from an ethnic minority or live with a disability may still have problems finding a school and staying in it. Breaking down these barriers of prejudice are core to Cambodia fully reforming its education system. Cambodia has approximately 20 ethnic groups, the majority of whom live in Cambodia’s country’s isolated, mountainous northeastern provinces. Even when ethnic minority
children can attend school, language differences leave them severely lagging behind the rest of their class as few minority speak Khmer and similarly the teachers will not speak their family language.
Thankfully, education for children with disabilities is increasingly gaining attention in Cambodia and response by the government who are working to eliminate education inequalities.
The future is bright for Cambodia and its education system. More Cambodian children now regularly go to school than any other time in the country’s history. In addition, there is virtually no gender inequality in Cambodian schools with figures of 95.8 percent of boys and 94.6 percent of girls enrolling for school.
Traditionally, many Cambodian children would not receive secondary education as they would be needed for work on the family business or farm. As the country's economy develops and attitudes towards education changes the numbers of children going to secondary school and university is increasing year on year.
However, the problem of children being taken out of school for work due to poverty is still a problem particularly in provincial and rural areas where schools may be poorly funded, staffed and far away from the family home.
To fix this requires a much greater investment in education – not only in vocational and higher education, but also at primary and secondary school.
The main goal is making sure all Cambodians have at least 10 years of formal education, forming the basic building block for a successful country economically, socially and artistically.