The government has urged all stakeholders to invest heavily in human resources to compete with other countries in the region. Speaking to Khmer Times’ COO Kay Kimsong recently, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said the government is trying its best to lift the younger generation to a higher level by offering both soft and hard components of knowledge and skills.
KT: How do you ensure that your $900 million budget is used properly, transparently and accountably?
Mr Naron: As you can see, 80 percent already goes to salaries. We have to make sure that teachers get their salary through proper accounting to achieve a good result. We also have to evaluate their performance. Secondly, in managing school budgets, we send money directly to the schools or school bank accounts. We have to make sure that all schools use that money and we send teams to check. More importantly, we have to support them with a school base management model. Thirdly, we have programs, so these programs should be evaluated properly. Every year, we have budget negotiations and the Ministry of Finance questions us. In our ministry, we divide money for different programs and different program management by decentralising allocations to the various departments. Each department has one budget package and policy, so we have to improve monitoring and evaluation. The Education Ministry is the first ministry to do so. The decision on spending is not only made by me but it also involves the director of each department. At the department level the decision is made by the director. At the school level it is done by the School Management Committee, which has many people to manage their budget with accountability. So I think there is accountability and also transparency in the way the budget is used. It is the same for the budget at the central level. The department has to show its proposal to the Ministry of Finance for evaluation, so that’s why even if the Ministry of Finance gives the money for specific purposes, it is not a blank check.
KT: Will your ministry continue to increase its budget for upcoming years?
Mr Naron: For me, my number one priority is to have a strong institutional capacity in the ministry. When we talk about education, we talk about two things. One is the hard component. For the hard component, if you have money you can build more buildings and buy more computers. But for software, or soft component, you cannot buy it immediately even if we give you the money. It takes time, institutional capacity and commitment to invest in soft components. You can train people but some are not committed and are not disciplined, so you have to build capacity. The best way is to spend more money efficiently and show results. For me, it is not just about more money. While we need more money, we must spend better and have a strong capacity to achieve better results. This means that you have to have a balance between having money, increasing the budget and the way to use the budget. If the budget increases too fast then the school can’t absorb the funds very fast. They may not spend well so we have to train them. You have to find out where to invest and work on it. When we invest in all universities with strong capacities we can get better results and give out more money. If we put money in some and that doesn’t work we will lose it. For me, such trust should continue and we must ensure that money should be well spent. We must have a strong institutional capacity to manage funds and show better results to the public. It is not just about having more money.
KT: What are the major challenges you faced as Minister of Education since you took office in 2013?
Mr Naron: I think that in the first mandate, the major challenge was to get real information about the sector and then to mobilize people to implement reform programs and get a consensus so that everybody agrees that this is the priority and the best way to do things. Now that everybody has agreed, I think that for the next five years we have to see how these programs are implemented in all schools because even if we have a project and more money, we have to make sure that we get results for what we want to do. The challenge is that we have to have enough people to go out and provide support to the schools and to change the culture at schools. I think it is not really easy to change the culture as you can see from the protest in Sisowath High School. After that protest, I understood that not everybody is prepared for changes yet, so we have to create conditions to implement the changes through pressure and incentives. We also have to make sure that we have enough people to go out and check on how the changes are being implemented. I think that it is really important to implement reform programs but it will not be easy and we may need more time.
KT: How can the Ministry of Education help youth to avoid crime, drugs and other negative activities in society?
Mr Naron: I think we must focus on education and I also call on family members of students to take part. The school alone cannot do it so we must educate society, we must educate the public and we must educate the new generation about what is wrong and what is right. Also we must ensure that youths have the right attitude to tackle and solve these problems themselves. We have many problems and sometimes we must encourage the young people who know their peers better to help tackle these problems. So that’s why education is really important to raise awareness about the crimes, about the problems, how to prevent them and more importantly how to solve them. Young people should be part of that solution. We, of course, focus on youths inside schools and I think it is a more effective and efficient way. Outside schools, we have youth development centres, but actually not many youths use that service so we must get the business sector involved. Only 30 percent of young people stay in the school system after they reach 17 years old. Between ages six to 11, data shows that 98 percent are inside the system. From 12 to 15 years old, only 50 percent of young people remain in school. At the upper secondary level, only 30 percent of young people are in school.
KT: What is the ministry’s goal during this mandate?
Mr Naron: The Ministry of Education will continue to reform all programs which were launched five years ago by focusing on examination reform, skills for young people, quality of education, human resource management, financial reform in education and reform of higher education institutions. The ministry has elaborated on its reform programs by preparing five main components of our vision in education reforms, including: implementation of teacher policies and action plans aimed at increasing the qualification of teachers, increasing their salary and improving working conditions and also providing professional development for teachers, especially those who work in schools, to give them opportunities to learn the latest methods for them to teach effectively.
KT: How can you tackle elements of corruption in the education system?
Mr Naron: I want to have improvements. Teachers have to really teach all students. The teachers are encouraged to share their wisdom. They can create clubs on professional learning or set up a professional learning committee. For the students, if they study hard they will have good scores and if they don’t study, they won’t score well. When we implemented Singapore’s education curriculum as a pilot project at Chea Sim Chroy Changvar High School, it was welcomed by the parents of the students. We called it School Base Management and we make sure that the teachers come to teach on time. The student also have to be well disciplined.