Study of Education During the Republic of Kampuchea

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Having gained independence from France in 1953, Cambodia started build its nation-state through paying attention to developing and implementing the educational field. New schools were built in both towns and rural areas. Higher institutions which the French had ignored to provide during its colony were made into exist in the capital and a few main provincial cities. However, the most remarkable educational progress completely disappeared during the 1970s, especially at the second half of 1970s ( International Educational Journal Vol.5, N0 1, 2004, p.90). After the collapse of Khmer Rough control and under the strong support from Vietnam and other socialist countries in 1979, the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) led by Heng Samrin started to rebuild the country from huge devastation of year zero ( Scholarly Journal by Gene V Glass, volume 11, 2003 ). The newly liberated regime's top priority between 1979 and 1981 was to rebuild education institutions. Its policy on enhancing education was in the interview with a senior education official who had been involved in basic education and teacher training since 1979:

"1979-1981 was a period of restructuring and rehabilitating both infrastructure and human resources. The restructuring and rehabilitation I refer was collecting school- age children and putting them in school despite the poor condition of the school and even conducting classes in the open air or under the trees. We appealed to all those teachers and literate people who survived to teach illiterates. There were no licenses or any high requirements for holding a teaching job. We just tried to open school and literary classes; we didn't care about quality" (Scholarly Journal by Gene V Glass, volume 11, 2003, pp 6-7).

The education system used by the regime was 4 + 3 + 3, which means students had to spend four years at primary school, three years at lower secondary and another three years at upper secondary one. The system was implemented in reply to emergent needs for human resources for nation rehabilitation. The main objective of the system of education was to form new and good hard-working citizens with a baggage of culture, of technical awareness, of a capacity for work, of good health and of a revolutionary morality ready to serve Kampuchea revolution with attempts to build a socialist state through the development of education." ( Ayres, 2003, pp.137-139 )

The first school year began on September 24, 1979, which was announced by Heng Samrin, the PRK president putting every blame on the nearly four-year Khmer Rough regime led by Pol Pot ( Ayres, p. 126 ). What actually obstructed the quality of education, especially at primary and high school levels during the PRK from 1979 to 1989 ?

To understand that, the following factors should be raised and considered.

Initially, there was a bad shortage of good and qualified teaching staff for the nation's schools. The PRK claimed in 1984 that 75 per cent of teachers were murdered by the Khmer Rough (Ayres, p.126). " The nation had only 13,619 teachers, at a ratio of 1 teacher for every 53 students. Only 4,000 had formal qualifications. In addition to their lack of experiences and qualifications, teachers had other concerns like moving about the country looking for missing relatives they had lost under the Khmer Rough, thinking about their parents who had died, poor physical health, psychological trauma, poor memory and concentration, so the teaching force was surely very weak. (Ayres, 2003, pp132-133 ). To encourage school participation, the government used the slogans like those who know more teach those who know less and another one was going to teach and going to school is nation-loving. People with any level of education who survived from the killing regime was asked and encouraged to become teachers, professors, and bureaucrats in the educational field. Potential teachers were given short- term training for one month, three weeks, or even two weeks and then started teaching. ( Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, 1998 ).

Secondly, there was a massive enrollment of students at primary and secondary schools. For example, by November 1979, 716,553 students had officially enrolled in primary schools throughout Cambodia, which was impossible for the regime to divert resources to training and retraining of school teachers, causing classroom instructions at low standard ( Ayres, p.132; p.138 )

Thirdly, there was a lack of qualified education leader and management staff at the ministry. One former official said, " because we did not know where to we should start. We were lost" ( Ayres, p.129 ). Chan Ven, the new minister of education, who had been a high school physics teacher, said that he and his qualified Cambodian colleagues did not have any ideas and had no sense of where to start and reach. The most attention they paid to was to put the students in schools as quickly as possible so that they could build Kampuchea into a nation of new socialist workmen, and when asked about the recruitments and training of teachers, the quality of education and what would be taught, he replied that it was beyond the capacity of Cambodia ministry of education. They certainly needed the assistance of Vietnamese experts ( Ayres, p. 128 ).

The fourth point was the poor condition of educational infrastructure. " With as much as 90% of the school buildings destroyed in Cambodia" ( Ledgerwood, J. (N.d). Education in Cambodia. Retrieved from

Some schools had no windows, insufficient furniture, so the students had to sit and study on the floor. The number of school buildings and classrooms did not match the large number of the students' enrollment. There were too many students that some of them had to take classes in the open air under the trees, in previously used hospitals, or at areas surrounded by mines and graveyards ( Ayres, p. 133 ).

The next factor was the learning capacity of the nation's students. Many students were suffering from malnutrition or diseases, especially malaria, that they had got from previous years, and like their teachers, they had other concerns about looking for their surviving relatives, thinking about their parents who had passed away, their basic shelters, necessary food, clothes, etc., which could affect their learning memory and concentration

( Ayres, p. 135 ). "In primary school about 30 per cent of the children had no father, 10 per cent had no mother, and between 5 and 10 per cent were orphans" ( Postlethwaite, 1988).

In addition to the five aspects mentioned earlier, learning and teaching materials were in a bad shortage. Although some materials used in previous regimes were not completely destroyed by the DK, those materials could not be used as the regime used new textbooks so as to achieve their aim. Some teachers used clay as a pen to write on the board. Seven or eight students shared one book and a stub of pencil. By 1980, the Centre for Program Writing and Textbooks had produced thirty-nine texts for the use in primary schools, several for secondary schools, and a single text for use in adult literacy education courses ( Ayres, pp, 129 ; 133 ).

Next, although the PRK held the power of the country, the regime was not internationally recognized. As a result, the Cambodian seat at the United Nation stage was not given to the PRK, but to the government of the DK because the international community was not sure whether Vietnam had liberated or invaded Cambodia, which caused a delay in providing the humanitarian assistance to the PRK, and the aid embargo that was to follow it, both impact the PRK regime's capacity to rehabilitate Cambodia and devastated Cambodian people ( Ayres, pp. 126; 136 )

What is more is that the regime mainly aimed to build a socialist state with socialist workmen through the development of education. So, it focused more on higher education and adult literacy education than the lower levels ( Ayres, pp. 137-138 )

Also, fighting between the PRK and DK and its alliance still continued at Cambodian-Thai border, so young men were needed for national defence ( Ayres, p. 125 ).

Last, the curriculum was not from the ministry of education, but by surviving teachers respectively. The first schools opened were not state schools but private ones. The lessons mostly focused on literacy, and teachers taught from their memory as what Suon Serey, a teacher who opened her own school, said.

To sum up, the summarized factors mentioned above indicate understandably why the quality of education during the PRK was so poor.


All things seen and considered, the cause of poor quality of education at primary and secondary levels during the PRK was mainly resulted badly from the Khmer Rough regime, and partly from the presence of Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia during that period.