In Phnom Penh’s Mean Chey district, amidst the murmurs of history and transition at Russey Village Primary School, emerges a symbol of steadfast dedication – Sun Somala, an educator who has cultivated young minds at the school since 1993.

When she began her teaching journey, the campus was a wooden structure with a palm-thatched roof. She has witnessed the school’s evolution from its humble beginnings, a classroom under the shade of trees, to its present state, a series of concrete buildings. 

Due to an ever-increasing number of students – and the recent demolition of a three room building, due to safety concerns – overcrowding in the school’s classrooms is a current concern.

“When I first arrived, I taught up to 80 students per class in a thatched roof classroom,” Somala, now in her 50s, recalls.

Despite the challenges, her commitment, along with that of her fellow teaching staff, has never wavered.

She notes that currently, a shortage of classrooms and teachers has led to each of the school’s 26 remaining concrete classrooms having to house more and more students, particularly in the younger grades. First grade classrooms, for example, are tightly packed, with class sizes often exceeding 60 or 70 students.

She suggests that the increasing number of students is partly due to several organisations which now send underprivileged students to the school.

Her story is not just one of teaching but of faith in the power of education amidst adversity.

As the situation has persisted for many years, parents have become accustomed to overcrowded classrooms, and do not seem overly concerned.

Ly Moniroth, whose son is in Grade 2 at Kolap 1 Primary School in the capital’s Daun Penh district, says there are more than 50 students in his son’s classroom.

“There are a lot of them, but it’s not a big deal. If possible, the school should add more fans. Because it’s the dry season, many students find it hot and there is not enough fresh air,” he tells The Post.

Addressing concerns regarding the student-to-teacher ratio in certain schools, Khuon Vicheka, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, explains the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation and housing development, particularly in suburban areas, which have led to a surge in demand for schools, classrooms and teachers. 

Vicheka says the ministry is committed to enhancing educational quality by implementing a system of standardised school norms. 

This initiative aims to foster competitiveness and excellence among schools and principals, while elevating teaching and learning standards across all educational levels. 

“Key measures include effective management, quality assurance and consistent disciplinary practices, which have led to the recognition of certain exceptional schools by parents,” she tells The Post. 

As the ministry assesses each school’s needs, Somala remains hopeful for a future where pedagogical standards can be met, dreaming of classrooms where every child has a seat at the table –literally. 

Suburban surge

Hem Sinareth, director of the Phnom Penh municipal education department, mentions that he and the ministry’s working groups have been visiting schools in the city centre and on the outskirts of the capital. This is due to the continuous increase in the number of students in suburban schools.

“Education minister Hang Chuon Naron has instructed us to visit various districts. Yesterday, we visited Por Sen Chey, Dangkor and Meanchey. This morning, we visited Russey Keo, Tuol Kork and Kambol, Prek Pnov and Chroy Changvar districts,” he adds. 

Sinareth believes that the only solution is to construct more schools, as more than 20 schools still lack sufficient classrooms.

“Schools in the suburbs face a significant shortage of classrooms, while urban schools are a bit more relieved. However, student growth is erratic, increasing one year and declining the next, due to the irregular relocation of migrant and factory workers,” he explains.

Amid new housing developments, student enrolments have increased steadily. However, Sinareth stresses the need to monitor this trend for two to three years or analyse any sudden spikes to ensure appropriate planning for future school building projects.

Pann Srea, principal of Russey Village Primary School, deals with overcrowded classrooms every day. Limited facilities and teachers force more students into each class, making management challenging.

“Two major factors are contributing to the situation: a growing influx of residents from the city centre, fuelling housing purchases, and the recent safety-driven demolition of an older three-room building,” he says.

“According to pedagogical standards, we lack about 15 classrooms. This is compounded by the shortage of teachers, as several of them have either retired or been transferred to other places. Currently, we are accommodating between 50 and over 70 students per classroom,” he adds.

Sinareth of the education department notes that apart from the shortage of classrooms, the shortage of teachers is a major challenge. He says that some secondary schools lack specialised teachers, while primary schools also face a shortage, leading to a reliance on contract teachers. In the capital, there are currently over 200 contracted teachers.

“In Phnom Penh, we receive the fewest number of new teachers. Sometimes, we only receive slightly more than 10 teachers, while the average number of retiring teachers is around 100 per year,” he says. 

“This is because the ministry prioritises regions with an even more severe lack of teachers. To address this shortfall, we employ part-time teachers and contract teachers,” he adds.

Popular campuses

A school that is highly regarded for its environmental standards and comprehensive involvement of all stakeholders can attract students from distant areas. 

This may also explain why certain schools experience higher enrolments.

For example, Moniroth from Russey Keo district chose to enrol his son in a school located more than 7km away in Daun Penh district, because he perceived a more favourable environment there, a sentiment shared by other parents.

“It’s not too far. I believe the school’s management is commendable, and the overall environment is exceptional,” he remarks.

“Consequently, these institutions have seen increased enrolment rates. The ministry’s focus on quality management and teaching standards remains a top priority, driving efforts to establish standardised expectations and instil confidence among parents,” Vicheka says. 

Echoing the sentiments of the ministry spokesperson, Sinareth highlighted the case of Kolap I Primary School, which enjoys the trust of parents from as far away as from Arey Ksat and Prek Anchanh in Kandal province who enrol their children at the school. 

“Though the number of students living in the vicinity is relatively small, they come from distant locales. In contrast, another school in Choeung Ek boasts a more aesthetically pleasing environment than others, prompting local residents to enrol their children there for studies,” he observes.

Addressing the issue

With rising temperatures and increased humidity, crowded classrooms become breeding grounds for illness, posing a significant threat to the wellbeing of children. 

Inadequate ventilation and limited space hinder proper air circulation, contributing to the spread of respiratory infections and heat-related illnesses.

Sinareth acknowledges the ministry’s concern regarding the health of young students in overcrowded schools, exploring the feasibility of constructing additional classrooms.

“Parents have suggested installing more fans, which we need to assess in terms of costs,” he states.

He explains that after conducting a thorough study, submitting a construction proposal to the Ministry of Economy and Finance may take up to a year.

According to established standards, one classroom should ideally accommodate 35 students, with a maximum of 40 to 45 middle school students per class. Sinareth says that no class should fall below the standard number of students.

“There are few classes with 80 to 90 students, mainly senior students in the hall. However, many classes have 50 to 60 students. We’re currently working to address this,” he clarified.