A life unexamined

October 6, 2014

During my recent sojourn to the UK, I missed what is a rather wonderful, if depressing, story from here in Phnom Penh, and one that seems to encapsulate many of the problems currently faced by Cambodia as a whole.

The results of a new government blitz on cheating and corruption at this year’s school grade 12 exams were announced while I was away. And it turns out that only 26 percent of students passed this year. This is compared with 87 percent who passed last year. Only 11 students got the top ‘A’ grade, out of the almost 90,000 who sat the exams.

The Education Ministry says that for the first time in recent history, all the students who passed did so purely on merit. A pass mark is necessary to get a university place here.

In the past, students could take mobile phones and cheat sheets into the exam. Teachers would sell test papers, students would pool money to get invigilators to turn a blind eye to cheating, and parents would even throw rocks wrapped with answer sheets through the windows of testing centres.

This year was rather different.

Copies of the exam were kept under lock and key, military police were deployed at test sites, students were patted down at least three times before entering the exam halls, and thousands of volunteers were hired to act as independent monitors.

Now I think this is brilliant. The recently appointed Education Minister, Hang Chuon Naron, who has a surprisingly good reputation, appears determined to make permanent changes. And these changes are going to cause pain. He told a local paper: “The result of the exam allows us to fix our education system, [because] we can see the strengths and the weaknesses [clearly] … the reforms are necessary because we cannot allow this to continue, otherwise we will produce massive [numbers] of graduates who will not be able to find jobs.”

But those who used to benefit from the corruption, the teachers and students, have been whining on about how corrupt everyone else is, how expensive daily life is, how having monitors watching them puts them off giving the right answers, how everyone else used to do it in the past, how life isn’t fair and so on.

So the government has given in, and announced a re-sit of the exams in the second week of October. I’d like to think that 60,000-odd kids who failed are now working like Japanese beavers to learn the stuff they clearly hadn’t bothered with before, but they may just be redoubling their efforts to find ways to cheat. We shall have to wait and see. But it’s a start.



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