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Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Absurd policy to 'kill off' small schools
This is absurd. To win votes, they promise 15-year free education for all. Yet they will punish poor children in remote areas by closing down their schools and force them to travel long distances to study far from home.
We are talking about more than 500,000 children in more than 14,000 small schools nationwide.
Parents and educators are crying foul against the Democrat Party's paradoxical policy. But Education Minister Chinnaworn Bunyakiat could not care less. Should his party win the upcoming general election, he has reportedly promised to return to continue his small schools killing spree. It is apparent that the Democrat Party does not care for the votes from parents and relatives of pupils in small rural schools. How brave, given its poor performances in all the polls!
A former teacher, Mr Chinnaworn is the product of the centralised education policy which focuses on rote-learning of Bangkok-centred national curriculum, with teachers' top-down authority and career path at the core, not community roots or children's creativity. That is why hundreds of parents, children and teachers from small schools in rural Thailand recently came to Bangkok to petition the Education Ministry to return small schools to their communities.
The main driving force of the draconian policy is the Office of Basic Education Commission, which is in charge of state primary schools across the country. Its secretary-general Chinnapat Bhumirat insists that the operation of 14,397 small schools with pupils under 120 is simply not cost-effective while yielding poor educational quality. The solution: close them down and move the pupils to larger schools with better education facilities.
The OBEC, however, refuses to answer these questions:
Does it make sense to make rural kids memorise things that are completely irrelevant to their lives and then judge them by the uniform standard of evaluation mainly for urban kids?
The OBEC overwhelms teachers with bureaucratic paperwork which pulls them away from the actual teaching. When it refuses to supply more teachers, teaching aid or allow small rural schools to create a local curriculum, who is really to blame when small rural schools fail the Bangkok standard?
Knowing their children need to excel in the Bangkok standard, many parents have already sent their kids to larger schools in town. Those who are attending village schools are those who are poor or fed up with the education system that makes children look down on their parents and way of life. Closing village schools puts a heavy burden on those who are already struggling financially. It forces small kids to navigate rugged terrain far from home and exposes them to potential dangers. It steals the children from their cultures. Is this the right thing to do?
Many small schools have proved that returning schools to the communities is a much better choice. At Sai Ngarm School in Trang province, for example, the teachers are the elders who reconnect the young with their local ecosystems, history, arts and crafts, and cultural values. The teachers act as facilitators of the learning process. The result is closer ties between schools, children and communities. The children finally find that learning is fun. The parents are happy that the children have respect for the local ways. Raising funds to run schools is then no longer a problem.
There are many more schools like Sai Ngarm. They want their children and their schools back. Why isn't the OBEC listening? While the OBEC is holding on fast to central power, it is useless to hope that other political parties will fare better than the Democrats, though.
When asked at a recent meet-the-press forum how they would deal with small school problems, Pheu Thai and other lesser political parties all looked bewildered before mumbling more or less the same answer: more money, more teachers, more computers and quality control.
In short, they didn't have an inkling as to how much Thailand needs education reform through decentralisation to empower local communities. This is why the children who suffer from OBEC's short-sightedness had to come to Bangkok with their parents and teachers, to effect the changes themselves.