School policy discriminates

The education authorities have come up with two controversial policies within the past two weeks. One is a plan to stop giving migrant students school uniforms, textbooks and financial support for extra-curricular activities. The other is to stop giving loans to students who have a low grade point average (GPA).

Both policies are not only discriminatory, but they will aggravate the already severe disparities in the country and foster social time bombs of youth alienation and unemployment.

When the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) and the Student Loans Fund (SLF) announced these policies, they cited the same reason: not enough money. It must be noted, however, that the Education Ministry receives the biggest chunk — nearly one-fifth, or 498 billion baht — of the national budget.

Although Thailand's level of education funding is among the highest in the world, the country’s education quality is among the worst. Nonetheless, education officials are set to receive a substantial salary increase despite a flagging economy and their poor performance.

Both Obec and the SLF have come under fire since their policy announcements, and rightly so. Should budget constraints become real, policy makers must decide where the money should be best utilised. They must ask themselves if education is a tool to empower the weak or to leave them further behind.

We now know their answer. When they perceive a budget crunch, they choose to eliminate money for ethnic minorities and the poor first. Their decision reflects badly on the education authorities’ mindsets. It also explains why the education system has failed to bridge social inequality.

Poor grades do not come out of thin air. More often than not, they come from family poverty and hardship. For state educators to think that under-performing students are lazy and do not deserve support is poor judgement and short-sighted.

Migrants are not national security threats — as believed by security personnel. They are our economic assets. Migrant children are valuable human resources for the economic engine if they receive proper education and support. Neglecting them because of ethnic prejudice will cost the country in a myriad of social problems. National security threats emerge from our own narrow-mindedness.

Following fierce criticism, Obec has promised to review its policy to cut support for migrant children. This is welcome news. Thailand’s “Education for All” policy, in line with the Children’s Rights Convention, has won praise worldwide. To relinquish it when the country is under military rule will further diminish the country’s international standing.

But the SLF remains unperturbed. Permanent education secretary Suthasri Wongsamarn insists borrowers must have a minimum GPA of 2.0, and must attend at least 18 hours of “public-minded activity” each semester to prove they are “good” people worthy of support. Ms Suthasri is also behind a policy to force feed students military songs at school.

This does not bode well for the country. To defuse political partisanship, disparity must be bridged. Progressive inheritance and land taxes, which the junta-led government is now mulling, are positive steps. But the weak cannot catch up if they are punished by a short-sighted education policy, nor can democracy take deep root when state educators brainwash children with militarism.

Education authorities must drop policies that punish migrant and poor children. They also must re-examine their roles and the mission of education in this new context of inequality and deeply polarised politics. The country needs to move forward, and the education system should help, not stand in the way.