New school buildings are allowing the children of Cambodia to dream of a better life.
Kampong Chhnang - On a warm, clear day in a remote commune some 65 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, 14-year-old Lach Chat takes his place among 77 other students in one of five classrooms housed inside a brand new school building.
He is in lower secondary school, and like his classmates, hopes to one day lead a prosperous life. "I want to have a good future," he said, when asked what motivates him to go to school.
Fifteen-year-old Run Sanop says she wants a higher standard of living. Lah Afiny, her 14-year-old schoolmate, says she wants to have a "good job" someday, while Lah Ramagn, 17 years old, hopes to gain more knowledge.
The children hanker for a life beyond farming, the main source of income in Chhouk Sar commune in Kampong Chhnang province, and they see education as key to creating more options. The occupations they aspire to include teaching and medicine.
The new school, called Chhouk Sar Lower Secondary School in Chhouk Sar commune, built as part of the Second Education Sector Development Project supported by a US$25 million soft loan from the ADF, is helping keep these children in school so that they can fulfill their dreams
"Before we built this school, students dropped out after they finished primary school because the nearest lower secondary school was about eight kilometers from their homes. So they just stopped studying," said Yun Sauin, an official of the district education office of Kampong Chhnang.
With few families in the 14-village commune able to afford bicycles for their children, added Sauin, up to 60% to 70% of students dropped out after primary school.
"After this new school was built, nearly 100% of the students continue in lower secondary school. The people here do not want their children to go very far from their homes because they want to keep them close to them. It is traditional among the people," he said.
Among the grateful parents is Kaui Sar, who lives near the new school with his eight children. The 46-year old farmer has one child already in high school while another goes to the newly built lower secondary school.
"As a parent, I am happy that the lower secondary school building is close to my house. I push my children to work hard and study to the end to finish their education. I hope my children will be better than me," said Kaui Sar.
This is one of 215 lower secondary schools built under the project, which began in 2005. Another 14 upper secondary schools have been constructed under the project, which also provides for community-based skills training opportunities in underserved areas.
Cambodia's rapidly growing urban economy coupled with the continuing dominance of agriculture as the country's primary employer creates a dual challenge for the government in meeting the emerging demand for a qualified, skilled, and competitive work force while bridging disparities in access to education.
Despite improvements in Cambodia's education sector in the last decade, problems persist stemming mainly from lack of facilities in the poorest and most remote areas. Low enrolment rates at the secondary level and low percentage of students completing school indicate there are large numbers of young people outside the school system who are unskilled and unemployable.
The project, which ends in 2010, aims to improve access to formal education for some 4.2 million children and provide skills training to a projected 3.3 million underemployed youths. This project builds on the achievements of the first Education Sector Development Project, which supported Cambodia's National Poverty Reduction Strategy for 2003-2005 and the Education Strategic Plan for 2004-2008.
"We are happy with this new school building but we still need more," said Sauin, noting that the facility may be unable to accommodate the 197 students graduating from the five primary schools in the commune and starting lower secondary school this year.
Chean Socheat, second deputy commune chief of Chhouk Sar, said the new lower secondary school built with ADB assistance can help the young people living in the 14 villages of the commune achieve their dreams. At the same time, he remains acutely aware of what remains to be done.
"The people and the commune council are very happy that this school will cut down poverty in our area, reduce illiteracy, and push the students to strive for higher education," he said. "This year we have two classes of students in lower secondary school. Next year there will be more and that will cause a lot of problems. With 2008 comes a new academic year, and we hope that donors like ADB will help push through with another school building to meet demand.