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Monday, November 10, 2008
Free education still a pipe dream
One of our national problems that has been swept under the carpet because of the preoccupation with the current political crisis is our education system.
With a high youth literacy rate and a primary school attendance ratio at 98%, you might feel there is nothing to worry about. But sighing with relief will be our big mistake.
Although the constitution ensures every child's right to a free 12-year education, many are still falling through the cracks. And that starts early; only 88% of primary school pupils make it to lower secondary and a mere 69% to higher secondary. It is the same pattern when the pupils move up the education pyramid.
The issue here is not about the quality of education for the children who can afford it. It is about a serious lack of access for those who cannot - even though compulsory education is supposed to be free.
According to a recent study by Thai Education Watch Network, more than 1.3 million children still do not have access to compulsory education. They are primarily poor children from ethnic minorities along the borders as well as those in the restive deep South, and immigrant children. Other vulnerable groups include street children, slum children and those who live in very remote villages.
The network's in-depth study of 1,200 households in 50 communities reveals only 51% of these needy children are enrolled in primary schools, and only 33% of them finish it. As for those who could make it to the secondary school level, only half of them finish. Meanwhile, as many as 15% of these children do not have any schooling at all.
Why is that?
It is not only because their families are poor. Probably more important is the poor management of the national education system.
To start with, free compulsory education is only free in the letter of the law; the state schools are poorly funded and are in dire need of extra cash. Parents still have to pay for books, stationary, sports and scout uniforms, computer classes and the so-called "donations".
The Education Ministry pretends this is not happening while the parents turn their anger towards the schools, believing that the whole thing means corruption. For many poor children, it means having to forego schooling altogether or dropping out mid-way.
Also problematic is the Education Ministry's policy to close small community schools and to build secondary and high schools in bigger communities only. This forces children to leave their villages or travel a long distance, which entails high transportation expenses, to pursue higher education.
Take the Moken, or sea gypsy children, on Ko Payam Island in Ranong province. They must travel by boat across the sea to study. But when it rains, when the boats do not come, or when they do not have the fees, they just have to skip school. It is why out of 20 school-age children there, only six still go to classes.
How to help these children?
Beside the money issue, it is obvious that the uniform, mainstream education system - being fat, bureaucratic, inflexible, and out of touch with local realities - cannot meet local needs. Meanwhile, these poor children do not need the standard, Bangkok-based education that robs them of their cultural roots.
Many educators believe more state support for non-governmental or community groups to manage local education can better answer different needs on the ground. Yet, there remains many more questions that the Education Ministry must answer.
Like how to make free education really free, how to support schools better financially and technologically, and how to improve the quality of vocational education so that university degrees are not the only tickets to good, satisfying jobs.
Unless this happens, more children will fall through the cracks, left on their own to struggle aimlessly, while the exploitation of children continues no end.
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