Why is Early Childhood Education Important for Cambodia?

Image: World Bank

Nhil Kanika
Cambodian Education Forum
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
December 05, 2020


Education plays a pivotal role in contributing to the development of any country by strengthening the quality of human resources. In Cambodia, the education system has seen a steady improvement in terms of quality. The formulation of the Education Strategic Plan in 2014, focusing on emphasizing equitable access to education, strengthening curriculum quality, and stimulating educators’ interest in high-quality education, has made a significant impact on education as a whole (McCartney, 2017). The transformation has captured the attention of concerned stakeholders, including students, teachers, and educational institutions. Despite the recent improvement, Cambodia’s education system is still lagging behind in many areas compared to the education system in other countries in the region (see Heng, 2020). The lack of support in learning, low quality in teaching and learning environment, less investment in improving educational curriculum, and inequitable access to schooling are some of the major concerns confronting Cambodia’s education system, causing many dropouts (UNICEF Cambodia, 2018).

The Need to Focus on Early Childhood Education

To meet the target of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), namely quality education by 2030, a joint effort from all stakeholders is required to substantially improve education at all levels. Greater attention needs to be paid to each stage of education to discover the root cause of the many problems facing the educational system in Cambodia. Despite the fact that around 43% of children aged from three to five were enrolled in preschool between 2017 and 2018, 55% of adolescent students remained out of school (UNICEF Cambodia, 2018). Many students still lag behind in terms of learning as almost 27% of grade 3 students were not able to produce any words during a dictation test (UNICEF Cambodia, 2018). According to PISA-D national report, only 10% of students at the age of 15 performed well in reading, mathematics, and science while their counterparts could not reach the baseline level of proficiency in all the three domains, reflecting the limited quality of learning and teaching the early years of schooling (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport [MoEYS], 2018). The surface of the issue can be traced back to the early stage of education that does not concentrate much on the significance of learning basic literacy and numeracy. Hence, the role of early childhood education as the foundation of lifelong learning should be given more attention in the Cambodian education context.

What is Early Childhood Education?

The principal function of early childhood education (ECE) is to build a strong foundation to bridge children’s lifelong learning journey. This indicates a need to be explicit about what is exactly meant by early childhood education. According to a definition provided by Kim and Umayahara (2010), ECE at the global level is the overarching observation and attention given to the kids from birth to the age of eight. The term ECE is used by Rao and Pearson (2009) to refer to the early stage of brain development that brings high prospects for learning enhancement. This definition highlights the importance that children can purely understand things even from the early stage of life.

The suggested definition, however, varies from one country to another. In Cambodia, the services of ECE provided to all children to get access to education equally start from birth up to six years of age. The prioritization is on home-based care program and community preschool (MoEYS, 2010). The objectives of ECE in the recent Education Strategic Planning 2019-2013 are on expanding equitable and inclusive ECE for all, intensifying the quality of ECE standard, and consolidating ECE management (MoEYS, 2019). Despite an array of definitions, ECE is required to be progressive. More attention needs to be paid to pave the way for education in the later stages.

The Significant Role of Early Childhood Education

To achieve the expected outcomes of advancing quality education system in Cambodia, all stages of schooling should be sharpened, especially the early childhood education. As ECE performs a vital role in education at the early stage, it is contemplated as a fundamental instrument of learning. ECE builds a concrete foundation for children to gain an understanding of the basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy for future learning. ECE allows children to interact with other kids to enhance communication and cooperation, play to maintain physical health, and create something through imagination to develop their growth. The early childhood services, moreover, encourage children to explore the world around them and enable them to possess the experience of autonomous learning (European Commission, 2019). Taking all of these into account, ECE is understood as the most significant years for children to absorb basic skills and knowledge.

At their early phase of development, children like a blank paper can learn anything easily and quickly. As the brain of younger ages develops rapidly, inputs in early years and adequate support in nurturing their learning will be a great asset to prepare them for the next levels of education. Early learning also fosters children to be more ready and familiar with the school environment and enhance their cognitive development (Aboud, 2006). Likewise, as Fleming (2019) points out, children’s growth in terms of physicality, mentality, and social well-being can shape how they will turn into adults. Thus, children who acquire ECE in the preschool or home-based program are more likely to be more familiar with the basic academic learning. In contrast, children who do not receive ECE seem to be slow to catch up with their peers (Fleming, 2019). This indicates how ECE contributes to the future learning of children by serving as a cornerstone for acquiring basic knowledge and skills.

Another important role of ECE is that it serves as a tool to enhance access to education. Inclusive ECE is crucial to ensure that children have a sense of belonging in the society by engaging and learning with their peers (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2017). However, in Cambodia, the limitation of transmitting knowledge to students derives from the inequitable education access for children. Despite the fact that some privileged children have more opportunities to receive more care in terms of early childhood services either at kindergarten or childcare centers, the vulnerable majority, including those from rural areas and low socio-economic families, are still encountering the challenges to acquiring the ECE services simply due to poverty and difficulty in attending schools. Due to this, it is hard for disadvantaged children to catch up with their peers and they may feel less confidence or insecure in the later stages of education. Therefore, efforts should be made to narrow the educational inequality and the widening income gap.

A number of research studies have indicated that early childhood development shapes students’ attitudes toward studying and fosters success in future learning (see Reynolds et al., 2018). In addition, children who receive quality ECE tend to be more familiar with the society due to the opportunity to receive early socialization with other children, teachers, and the learning environment around them. This significant aspect of early learning helps students to be more courageous, confident, and enthusiastic at school. Cunha and Heckman (2010) demonstrated that ECE not only boosts children’s academic performance, but also strengthens their behavioral development. Moreover, children who receive the ECE services at preschool or home-based programs are likely to be more ready to progress in their study and enter the next phase of learning than their peers.


As the world is moving forward fast, Cambodia needs to catch up in terms of the education quality. Among the different stages of educational development, early childhood education lays as a solid foundation and serves as the most prominent element in facilitating the learning process of children. Thus, given the significant benefits of ECE, more investment should be increased and directed to this early phase of education in order to ensure that all children are provided with quality and inclusive education. To make sure that no child is left behind, disadvantaged children from poor families must be supported to receive equitable education. Joint efforts and firm commitment by all relevant stakeholders to improve the access to ECE are vital as they will contribute to facilitating and enhancing the quality of education in Cambodia.

The Author

NHIL Kanika is a senior student pursuing a Bachelor of Education in English at the Institute of Foreign Languages, Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is also senior student majoring in International Relations at the Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia. She is currently an intern at Cambodia Education Forum (CEF).


Aboud, F. E. (2006). Evaluation of an early childhood preschool program in rural Bangladesh. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21, 46–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2006.01.008

Cunha, F., & Heckman, J. J. (2010). Investing in our young people. National Bureau of Economic Research, 117(3), 387-418. https://www.nber.org/papers/w16201

European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education. (2017). Inclusive early childhood education. https://www.europeanagency.org/projects/iece

European Commission. (2019). Teaching and learning in early childhood education and care. https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-policies/eurydice/content/teaching-and-learning-early-childhood-education-and-care-8_en

Fleming, M. (2019, December 11). The importance of early childhood education. Phillips Brooks School. https://www.phillipsbrooks.org/post/~board/features/post/the-importance-of-early-childhood-education

Heng, K. (2020, November 16). Stakeholder collaboration: The key to promoting academic research in Cambodia (vol 2, no. 20). Cambodia Development Center. https://cd-center.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/P124_20201116_V2IS20_EN.pdf

Kim, G. J., & Umayahara, M. (2010). Early childhood care and education: Building the foundation for lifelong learning and the future of the nations of Asia and the Pacific. International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 4,1–13. (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/2288-6729-4-2-1

McCartney, J. (2017, August 14). Improving access to education in Cambodia. The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/access-education-in-cambodia/

MoEYS (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport). (2010). Education Strategic Plan 2009-2013. http://www.moeys.gov.kh/index.php/en/home/policies-and-strategies/esp-2009-2013#.X73oh2hLhPY

MoEYS. (2018). Education in Cambodia: Findings from Cambodia’s experience in PISA for Development. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.

MoEYS. (2019). Education Strategic Plan 2019-2023. https://www.moeys.gov.kh/index.php/en/policies-and-strategies/3206.html

Rao, N., & Pearson, V. (2009). Early childhood care and education in Cambodia. International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 3(1), 13–26. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276346271_Early_Childhood_Care_and_Education_in_Cambodia 

Reynolds, J., Ou, S. R., & Temple, J. A. (2018). A multicomponent, preschool to third grade preventive intervention and educational attainment at 35 years of age. JAMA Pediatrics, 172(3), 247-256. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.4673

UNICEF Cambodia. (2018). Education: For every child, quality education and life skills. UNICEF Cambodia. https://www.unicef.org/cambodia/education

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