Unlike China, Korea, and Vietnam, government-sponsored education in Cambodia played virtually no part in its early history. Some 800 years ago, state education in Cambodia was reserved for children of the elite. 1 During the 1880s, years after the country became a colony--technically, a protectorate 2 of France --some Chinese and Vietnamese children in the country's capital, Phnom Penh, attended a French-managed school. Many Cambodian parents kept their children out of the school. 3 Only in 1904 did Cambodian authorities begin to establish a national system of education. The following year, officials reported 750 pupils attended protectorate schools in the capital city. These numbers included 29 princes and 25 princesses. 4 Not until some 25 years later was the country's first lycée (high school) built.
Ordinary people had to depend, for their education, on pagoda schools attached to Buddhist temples and taught by the bonzes, or monks. These schools, which were to be found throughout the country, were open only to boys and men. No institution existed for girls and women. It was common practice for males to enter the temples for some months or even years before marrying. As Bilodeau contended, however, the educational content of this traditional schooling was scant:
The pagoda schools . . . were schools only in name. The pupils' chief role was to act as servants to the bonzes, accompanying them on their morning begging expeditions and cleaning the temple buildings. The pagoda schools had no curriculum, time table, inspectors or examinations. . . . Their only instruction was during part of the afternoon, when they learnt to read the sacred texts (which were inscribed