Interested expats all know about the state of the Cambodian education system in comparison to other more developed countries. An indication of what it is like is the fact that people of means send their children to private schools or even abroad.
At the beginning of the past school year, I had to make a choice where to send my Cambodian stepson. He had completed middle school (8th grade) in the U. S. with average grades; it goes without saying that we wanted to give him the best education available in Cambodia. Ideally, we were looking for a bi-lingual school. Being Khmer it makes sense that he should be able to read and write Khmer on an advanced level; being in the era of globalization with English the dominant language, we also wanted him to continue his education in English.
The public schools don’t enjoy much of a reputation and naturally don’t teach in English, although English is taught. I experienced first-hand with my two stepdaughters the level of knowledge they pass on or rather don’t pass on to their students. They had both completed middle school here when they came to the U. S. American high schools are not too demanding to begin with, but these two girls were pretty much lost there. Nevertheless, they both managed to obtain their high school diplomas there.
Numerous private high schools in Phnom Penh teach in English. Many, I don’t know exactly how many, are just elementary schools. Practically all of them have a very big minus in my mind. They do not employ native English speakers. If parents want their child to learn a foreign language it is best taught by a native speaker of that language, right? Well, many of those private schools may not have the funds for that. After some research I narrowed my search down to just a handful of high schools. Unfortunately, the best ones offer curriculums in English only. So I had to weigh whether it would be desirable for my stepson to have a decent English education but probably wouldn’t be able to write a decent letter or document in Khmer.
Anyway, here are the schools I contemplated:
The International School of Phnom Penh (ISPP)
This is clearly the top secondary education school in Cambodia. They offer the International Baccalaureate, which is recognized practically worldwide and opens admission to even the best colleges in the English-speaking world. They possess all the modern facilities a high school needs to have in this day and age. Needless to say, that the curriculum is very demanding and rigorous. I also do know about the IB first-hand as my own son entered the IB-program in the U. S., only to resign after just one semester. It was too strenuous for him, although he did have the brains for it.
All this excellent education comes at a price, of course. With registration, capitalization, tuition, etc. the annual amount parents would have to dole out is in the range of $15,000. That’s more than most normal colleges in the U. S. cost. Considering the cost and the fact they my stepson with his average grades wouldn’t probably cut it, and that this would only be good if he were to go to college abroad, I eliminated this school from my list.
Northbridge International School Cambodia (NISC)
What was said about the ISPP applies to this school as well, except that they don’t offer the IB. A few years back they were accredited for the Diploma Program but must have lost that in the intervening years. According to their website, though, they will most likely be a member for the next school year. Tuition fees, etc. are practically the same as at the ISSP, and for exactly the same reasons I eliminated that school too.
I am sure both are excellent schools and offer an outstanding Western education but they are both geared towards diplomatic and NGO personnel with the means to pay these kinds of fees.
Zaman International School
Zaman enjoys an excellent reputation among Cambodians. Many would like to send their children there if they could only afford it. This school has exactly what I was looking for: classes in both English and Khmer. 20 of the 40 weekly class-hours are taught in English. The Ministry of Education and an international education body accredit them (see their website). This institution comprises not only elementary and secondary education, but they have an outstanding university as well. Equipment and facilities are on a par with today’s requirements. High school graduates earn a Khmer diploma as well as a Zaman diploma, which is recognized by a number of colleges in English-speaking countries. So this would fit my bill, it appeared. The one drawback for me was that the level of my stepson’s Khmer is not sufficient to enter high school just yet. Registration, tuition, etc. run to about $3,500 a year, which would appear to be very reasonable under the circumstances. This school, however, was founded and is run by Turkish people. Although they profess to employ only native English-speakers for their English-language classes, I found out this is not quite true. Of the English-faculty staff, there are maybe two or three native speakers. Even the English teacher is Turkish. This is a big disadvantage. I heard that they had more native speakers originally, but seemed to have phased them out over the years; probably for cost reasons. Turkish teachers may be less expensive than say Brits or Americans. Other than that, being Turkish doesn’t mean that they are Muslim-oriented; they are an all-secular school. Classes, however, are not co-ed.
British International School
As opposed to all the other international schools this institution blooms in the dark, so to speak. They do not advertise, nor do they have a website. When asked why, we were told that they rely on word-of-mouth only, so as not be overwhelmed by wealthy Khmer who many a time think their money can buy the grades and the teachers’ goodwill in the face of the children’s bad behavior.
In short, they offer the English A-levels diploma, which is similar to the U. S. diploma, possibly a little more rigorous, but not quite as demanding as the IB; only native speakers, of course, all the modern equipment and facilities, as far as we could tell, so pretty much the same as the ISSP, and the NISC. At $6,500 a year not exactly a steal, but still considerably cheaper than the former two. I was rather tempted as I put great stock in European schools. I always think they are better when it comes to general knowledge. The U. S. system is probably better at the tertiary level.
Logos International School / Hope Schools
Logos is apparently an excellent teaching institution with everything that’s needed and equal to NISC in the quality of education they provide. However, it is faith-based and as an avowed atheist, I cannot send anyone to a school that starts the day with a prayer, has daily Bible studies, and teaches Intelligent Design. To their credit, though, they also teach Darwinism. Additionally, I don’t believe Christian schools have a place in Cambodia to try to convert mostly devout Buddhists to their faith through, although admittedly good, education. They do say they do not indoctrinate but they do want to convince people that only the Christian faith will make them better and happier people and that their salvation lies in a Christian life. It is not exactly cheap for a Christian school – around $4,000, considering that many Christian elementary schools in Cambodia are free. Here is a quote from their website that says it all:
“In the case of religion, enrollment may be censored when necessary in order to maintain the strong Christian culture of the School.”
Western International School
This is a Cambodian-run institution, the staff is Cambodian, and it seems the only appeal they have is that their tuition fees are downright cheap in comparison to the other schools – only about $1,000 per year. Although they offer a high school in only English, it is only part-time, so a student would only get part of an education. I later learned that many of them go to a public school as well. The impression I got was not too favorable, so I eventually ruled it out.
Golden Gate American School
This school has been around since 1996 and was founded by overseas Cambodians. One of their sons who obviously stayed here when his parents emigrated runs it. They offer kindergarten to high school, or K-12 as it is generally known. However, high school currently consists of one 9th grade of nine students with exactly two teachers who between them teach four subject classes. They hope that this 9th grade will become 10th grade next year, but the future is somewhat hazy if you take a closer look.
At around $5,000 a year, this school is there for the money it seems, even though I don’t doubt its teachers’ motivation and good intentions. The director seems to be a little out of his depth, though. One of the teachers also told me that most students go to a public school in the afternoon. Again, this demonstrated the contradiction in the schools pronouncements. They offer full-day classes. Everybody is free to come to their own judgment. I cannot recommend it.
In the end, I decided on Zaman school for the one and simple reason that they offer Khmer-language instruction as well. After all, an educated Cambodian must be able to speak, read, and write literate Khmer. What if he wants to make a career in his home country - which, incidentally, I ardently hope for? Where would Cambodia be in the future if all its elite were to emigrate? He can always take the exams for any diploma later on, or enter an international school at grade 11 or even 12, if he is so inclined and bright enough. Zaman might not be the best school in English-language classes but it is unique in its combination in Cambodia. Additionally, any foreigner who wants to study in another country usually needs to take an admission test like the SAT or ACT in the U. S. anyway, no matter which diploma he or she holds, except, for the most part, the IB-diploma. So for the time being, all options are still open for him.