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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.