'Ghost' students a new nightmare for Obec

'Ghost' students a new nightmare for Obec

Graft chiefs expand probe as fraud involving inflated enrolment numbers at schools looks to be a widespread problem

One of the origins of the 'ghost students' problem was the aggressive campaign to merge small schools with large ones - an unpopular project in much of the country. (Photo courtesy EDF International Foundation)
One of the origins of the 'ghost students' problem was the aggressive campaign to merge small schools with large ones - an unpopular project in much of the country. (Photo courtesy EDF International Foundation)

The Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) has ordered random checks on state-run schools after another 10 in the Northeast were found to have exaggerated their student enrolment numbers.

Pol Lt Col Wannop Somjintanakul, deputy secretary-general of the PACC, said Tuesday the order was issued after the PACC's Area 3 Office found the enrolment of 196 students claimed by Kham Sakae Saeng School in Nakhon Ratchasima's Kham Sakae Saeng district had been fabricated.

The investigation was carried out after Rangsirot Palawat, the new director of the school, made the discovery, said Pol Lt Col Wannop.

The number of students at Kham Sakae Saeng School, as reported to the Office of Basic Education (Obec), stands at 1,510. However the new director said the true figure was just 1,319, said Pol Lt Col Wannop.

Graft is suspected given the school's previous requests for state subsidies, which are allocated per head.

This prompted the PACC to launch the nationwide checks to find out if any more schools under the Obec's jurisdiction were guilty of falsely reporting student numbers, he said.

"This case [Kham Sakae Saeng] is directly linked to the budget the school received. Or it may have something to do with the benefits [the previous school director] possibly gained from his transfer to a medium-or large-sized school," he said.

The PACC has yet to seek any coordination with the Obec regarding the findings. However, it has ordered all of its area offices to begin the random checks this week, Pol Lt Col Wannop said.

The PACC aims to prove the irregularities in the schools' reports of their student numbers and delve deeper into their past budgetary spending, he said.

The agency also plans to find out if any of the school directors falsely reported their student numbers for personal benefit.

The PACC will notify the Obec when the investigation is complete, Pol Lt Col Wannop said.

Pol Lt Col Samart Chainarong, director of the PACC's Area 3 Office, said his office ran similarly random checks a few weeks earlier on schools in Si Sa Ket, Yasothon and Nakhon Ratchasima. It found at least three schools had reported having more students than was actually the case.

The office began working with its civic networks in those three province as well as in Surin, Buri Ram, Amnat Charoen, Ubon Ratchathani and Chaiyaphum, in checking on more schools in these eight provinces, he said.

And so far 10 more schools were found to have exaggerated their student numbers as well, he said.

The apparent motive behind this alleged misconduct was an attempt to make these schools eligible for medium-sized classification by fulfilling the requirement that they have at least 500 students, Pol Lt Col Samart Chainarong said.

Although the upgrade from a small- to medium-sized school would not net the director a higher salary, it means the school would receive a larger budget, he said.

Obec has ordered all schools in the Northeast that stand accused of exaggerating their student numbers to receive more subsidies from the government to avoid paying these "ghost students" until a probe by the Office of Anti-Corruption in Public (OACP) is complete.

"Our special committee is investigating some irregularities found by the OACP. If it turns out that the schools were making false claims to gain more subsidies from Obec, schools must return the budget to Obec and their directors who are false claimants must be held responsible for the wrongdoing," Obec secretary-general Boonrak Yodpetch said.

There are between five and 38 "ghost" students in the schools being probed, but at Kham Sakae Saeng School the number rose to 196.

Investigators estimated that about one million baht in subsidies to the province was disbursed to 196 ghost students from grades 7 to 9 by Obec. This equates to 4,800 baht each -- 3,500 baht for help with their education, 850 baht for student quality development, and 450 baht for textbooks. Those in the upper-secondary level (grades 10 to 12) get higher subsidies at 6,250 baht per head.

According to the OACP's Area 3 chief Samart Chainarong, school directors falsified the size of their student bodies so they could qualify for more subsidies as medium-sized schools and justify the directors' transfers to larger schools.

Salaries at those schools were the same but the directors seemed to be eyeing admission-related bribes from parents, Mr Samart said.

However, the school claims the 196 students are real and that their grades are listed as having a zero GPA or I (incomplete assignments). The school said the students did not contact teachers to have their scores readjusted or notify the school that they were pulling out. As a result, the school cannot just remove their names from the register as it could be in breach of the law.

Mr Boonrak said Obec will cooperate with the OACP to probe any suspected irregularities at its schools in the Northeast. He insisted his agency would take disciplinary action against any officials found guilty of wrongdoing.

The investigation is expected to take around a month to wrap up completely.

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