'Umphang Wittayakom is located amidst mountains, foliage and streams."
Somprasong Mang-ana, director of Umphang Wittayakom School in Tak province, talks to his students during a school dinner. Training in vocational skills will provide these pupils with opportunities to earn a living in their local communities.
People who hear these lyrics in the first part of the school song of Umphang Wittayakom School (UWS) in Umphang district may well picture the school as being situated in a serene valley.
Such an image of UWS is actually valid. However, against this serene backdrop, the students are engaged in a tough struggle.
Extremely remote indeed, the Burmese-Thai border district of Umphang can be reached only after approximately a five-hour drive up and down hills from the Tak provincial city. Nearly 700km from Bangkok, it is one of the most far-flung districts anywhere in Thailand.
Primarily because of this great distance, as well as the poverty and traditional practices of the community, most of the students, many with unclear citizenship status, are prevented from leaving the area to pursue higher studies.
"Last year, only 15 percent of the students who graduated from Mathayom 6 (Grade 12) had the chance to continue to higher education," said Somprasong Mang-ana, the director of UWS, who added that the rest entered the labour market in Umphang and nearby towns, went on to study in the community college or stayed home.
As a result of the recent collaboration effort between Tak Education Service Area Office 2 (Esao 2) and the Tak Provincial Vocational Education Office (Pveo), students at UWS may now have a better opportunity to live and learn in their hometown.
"In remote areas, students might not have the chance to pursue higher education. If we join hands to help them, they can have access to fulfilling occupations and careers in their respective areas," said Chaiwuti Bannawat, deputy minister of education, who presided over the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Esao 2 and Pveo recently.
Under the MOU, the two entities will work together to provide vocational education for Mathayom 4 to 6 (Grades 10 to 12) students in schools under Esao 2's jurisdiction. The programme will be piloted in three schools. UWS is one of them.
The agreement aims to prepare students for entry into the workforce to serve the Tak special economic zone. The zone consists of five Thai-Burmese border districts in the province: Tha Song Yang, Mae Ramat, Mae Sot, Phop Phra and Umphang.
"In the five districts, frankly speaking, many students do not have the chance to continue on to higher studies. Some of them leave school midway in their education, or leave school after graduating from the lower- or upper-secondary levels to work for a living," said Mr Chai-wuti.
The minister added that he would like to see more of such collaboration, which ultimately could provide the foundation on which to build vocational skills to supplement students' academic knowledge.
School for training
The curricula in the vocational education scheme come in many variations. In one variation, for example, students in upper-secondary school would follow for six terms their regular academic curriculum, plus some vocational subjects.
After graduation, the students would enrol in a vocational certificate course in a vocational institution and be able to complete the course in just one semester. At the end of this process, the students would receive a Mathayom 6 certificate as well as a vocational education certificate.
In another variation, a regular school - in collaboration with the vocational education office in its area - would conduct vocational certificate courses as part of its curriculum. Its students do not have to leave their area to go to a vocational institution. They will be awarded a vocational education certificate upon graduation.
According to the Office of the Basic Education Commission, 107 schools under its jurisdiction provide vocational education. So far, 8,406 students have joined the programme. As for the area under Esao 2, the collaboration effort has resulted in a pilot programme at Ban Maerameong School in Tha Song Yang district.
A step forward
UWS hosts 1,214 students from Mathayom 1 to 6 (Grades 7 to 12) and 28 teachers. Most of the students are children of Karen parents, and around 45 percent are still waiting to be granted Thai nationality.
Many barriers prevent students from leaving their communities - including distance, poverty and/or citizenship status - but the prospects of learning, obtaining employment and earning a living in Umphang district itself will soon be available to all of them.
"When the students graduate, they can carry with them the knowledge and skills learned in this programme to enter the job market or they can use the new skills as the foundation for obtaining higher-education credentials like a higher vocational certificate or a bachelor's degree.
Moreover, these students can work and earn a living within their respective communities," said Mr Somprasong.
As a result of Mr Somprasong's dedication to advancing the interests of the school, UWS has been progressing and improving continuously. Donations and support from various sectors have flowed into the school.
However, he said, what the school really needs is a governmental mechanism that can nourish the school and its students in the long run. He said that the MOU was an excellent start.
"First, I would like students to get vocational certificates, so that they are qualified to apply for jobs that require such certificates," said the director. "If we were to compare life to a boxing match, with this programme we have at least given our students a chance to enter the ring prepared," he added.
Courses for life
A couple of years ago, UWS aimed to add a solid vocational training curriculum to its studies programme, but the plan never materialised, and so this new scheme is a seemingly-similar golden opportunity that can give new hope to the students.
Mr Somprasong hopes that the school, in collaboration with Pveo, can introduce vocational courses and award vocational certificates so that students need not move to institutions outside their district. In this way, the students' and their families' financial burdens will be lightened as well.
For the next semester, the school is preparing to start two courses: electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.
"The reality of today's world and needs is that the occupations that our students can secure quickly after graduation are as technicians," said Mr Somprasong.
Currently, Umphang has to generate its own electricity. However, electricity will soon be supplied to the district from outside. Once electricity is more widely available, explained the director, more and more people will have electronic devices and more electronic equipment will be used.
"If something goes wrong with those devices and equipment, our future technicians will be on hand to serve the people in their respective areas and earn money to support themselves," he said.
Mr Somprasong added that many Umphang households have switched from using livestock in their farming activities to deploying small tractors instead.
Motorcycle usage is also increasing. He hopes that by studying mechanical engineering, students will have the necessary skills to maintain these machines.
At the moment, if these machines go out of order and cannot be fixed by local technicians, they have to be transported to Mae Sot district, the closest well-equipped location, which is nearly four hours' drive away.
"Repairs may cost around 400 to 500 baht, but 800 baht has to spent on transporting a machine to Mae Sot," said Mr Somprasong. The director also wants to run a shoe-repair course and a barber's course.
The vocational programme will start in the first semester of the 2010 academic year. Students who are going to complete Mathayom 3 (Grade 3) this semester (the second semester of the 2009 academic year) can choose to participate in the programme.
"We aim to enrol 50 students," said Mr Somprasong. "At the moment, 83 students have expressed an interest in joining the programme," he added.
Pitak Cavcum, 19, who is in Mathayom 3 (Grade 9), is one of many students who are very enthusiastic about this upcoming opportunity.
"I really want to study a trade," said Pitak, but he admitted that his father wants him to stick to academic studies. He wishes to study electrical engineering and would like to further his studies in this field later on.
"We don't have many electrical technicians here in Umphang. We do have a number of motorcar technicians, though. We encounter frequent blackouts, and electronic devices here often malfunction," Pitak said. He promised to return to work in Umphang if he had to go elsewhere to graduate with higher qualifications.
Namfon Tunlayaphiban, 17, another Mathayom 3 (Grade 9) student at UWS, said that she would definitely join the vocational project.
"I come from a poor family and cannot go far away from our area, so it would be great if I could participate in the training course here," said Namfon, adding that she also wishes to study agriculture, tourism or accounting.
"UWS expects to foster among our students a high quality of life equal to that of students who attend good schools in the larger cities in Thailand, even though our students are hill tribe people, have no surname and are underpriviledged," said Mr Somprasong.
Vocational training in remote schools, not only in the case of UWS, can open a door of opportunities for many students. However, UWS' director stresses that the important point is how to sustain the programme and make it the most beneficial for students.
"I hope all these efforts and good intentions don't just amount to a flash in the pan," he said.