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Revolutionary changes in the educational system

Revolutionary changes in the educational system

A rollercoaster ride to watch

Annelie Hendriks
Photos: Annelie Hendriks and Manus Brinkman

No smooth, slowly winding roads for a visit to the small schools for minority group children in the mountains of Mae Sariang. More of a steep, almost a rollercoaster ride over rough roads full of deep gullies filled with orange sand which makes you one moment look at the sky and the other watch your feet, pinned back in your seat by the safety belts. It goes on and on five hours one way and five hours back and the next day the same procedure to a school which was in the end not that far away from the first school but you have to, because there are no connecting roads.

Arunee with her mother.

There are moments that you really question yourself if your head is still connected to your neck. And when you suddenly are confronted by a car coming from the other direction or if a breakdown car or a fallen tree blocks the road you have to do all this in the reverse for at least some kilometers at times.

But while driving over the mountain ridges the views are extremely beautiful. The sight of the small very green rice fields snuggled at the foot of the blue colored mountains, small yellow colored villages enveloped by huge bougainvillea’s makes it all worthwhile. Whilst the schools are poor and without many facilities, the care is shown by the small gardens and ponds and the drawings of the children on the walls.

For the first time - safe water.

Since the government extended the compulsory education from 12 to 16 last year, the educational opportunities for marginalized minority children is set to change rapidly.

During the school year 2004/2005, the middle schools in the valley and at the foot of the mountains of Mae Sariang have already to cope with a larger influx of minority children at their schools. During the coming school year 2005/2006 many of the 120 primary schools scattered in the mountains of Mae Sariang are obliged to establish the first class of the middle school (M1).

Now we will all go to school.

Post-primary education is fundamental in the improvement of the lives and future opportunities for hill tribe children. For the first time they will get the opportunity to finish the junior middle school by which time they will have a better chance to attend the senior middle school or vocational schools in the future which will give them more opportunities to get jobs and earn an income to support their extremely poor families.

The new canteen during daytime in which girls are allowed to sleep in the evenings.

The challenges for the directors of the schools and the teachers are huge. With not that much more financial means they have to set up a curriculum for the middle school and prepare and train the teachers. But they are confronted with many more difficulties. A school in the mountains is not just a biking block away from where the students live. They have to stay in dormitories and they have to have meals for them three times a day. The Department of Education of Mae Sariang received money from the government to build more school buildings, but there will be no money left for the desperately needed dormitories, canteens and study centers where the children can do their homework and share school books.

The school facilities are constructed by the villagers, the parents, and the teachers with the help of the children carrying sand for concrete.

In the last two years, I have had intensive contacts with those schools in Mae Sariang, and I have met dedicated teachers everywhere. They always ask for donations for dormitories for the children - never for themselves although their housing is often appalling too. During my last visit in March I met teachers giving up their own sleeping hut to let 20 or so children sleep there. They ask temples nearby to take at least the boys. Even police boxes are helping out and offering sleeping places for the boys. Girls are sleeping on the floor of the canteens. Financial support from the government will not be forthcoming soon. Each school first has to prove that they are capable of setting up a middle school curriculum and only after that they can submit proposals to finance school facilities. And needless to say that at that moment they have to compete with many schools which need the same facilities. In practice it will mean a long wait.

And steep it is!

It is not that the government is doing nothing financially. To accommodate all these changes in education (the curriculum also needs to be developed in a child oriented way and the quality has to be improved), teachers who are old or maybe better described as old-fashioned, or are not in good health were offered early retirement payments if they made that choice before January 2005. Many did so. They made way for younger, better educated teachers. The government also raised the minimum salary for full time teachers and persons working in education (including drivers/ janitors) to 10,000 baht per month.

School building in Nae Noi.

Last year people with more managerial and educational experience and more contacts with the Ministry in Bangkok, replaced the management of the Educational Department in Mae Sariang. The administrative and financial system at the Educational Department is being transferred into a much more accountable and transparent one. It really shows. Furthermore, full-time teachers are not allowed to have other jobs and need to be full-time working in education, which is what they are paid for.

And all these changes are taking place on top of the ordinary problems of an Educational Department in the poorest province of Thailand, such as flashfloods which washed away schools, no electricity, no safe drinking water, malnutrition, drugs and alcohol problems, AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, bad roads and lacking means of transportation, not enough books, beds, blankets, food, and in the rainy season the sheer isolation of many of the schools in the mountains.

Who wants to sleep in the new dormitory?

At this moment the Samsara and Wild Goose foundations from the Netherlands, working in Thailand under the umbrella of the Foundation for Education for Rural Children (FERC) are building dormitories at 10 schools in Mae Sariang and canteens and study centers (average 100,000 baht each). In May we will start building water collecting tanks and water purification systems (60,000 baht each) at 10 other schools. We are also raising funds for scholarships for children from very poor families to give them the means to go to a middle school. The average school costs of uniforms/stationery/schoolbooks for a child for a year is 5,500 baht.

Our philosophy is that the construction needs to be a community-based activity. This means that we only pay salaries for highly skilled labor such as for welding and plastering. The school facilities need to be constructed by the villagers, the parents, and the teachers, with the help of the children for the easy parts of the work themselves. This will contribute to a closer relationship between the village and the school community and it will enhance the feeling of ownership.

At the primary school Baan Um Pok for instance, the dormitory is being built by the families of the 107 school children. In turn, a group of five families is helping one full day and all the children help one hour a day after school time clearing the land and carrying buckets with sand for making cement. After that, as a reward, there will be an extra hour of ball sports at the schoolyard for them. Needless to say, all the people of the foundations who raise the funds and monitor the projects are also volunteers. The overhead is never more than 3 percent, which makes it very attractive for donors.

With 168 poor schools in Mae Sariang district, the need for all those facilities was already enormous. Now with the educational changes taking place at such a fast pace the need will be even more. If you are interested in how you can help too, you can contact me through Chiangmai Mail.