Off to a poor start in life
Children are missing out on early education as the economic slowdown squeezes the household budgets of those most in need of care.
Three years ago Kittimas Nursery had more than 15 children in its care. But last week, there were only five.
Bright beginning: Located on the first floor of a community flat, the Bongai pre-school child development centre is run by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. It has more than 70 students.
“The parents don’t have any money. They would owe me a month’s fees, and then on the second month would take their child and leave,” said the owner, 61-year-old Kittimas Rattanarangsri. “I’m not sure if we can survive like this.”
Ms Kittimas had to lay off three teachers and is now left with only one helper, who is given a daily wage of 200 baht, as preschool children from poor families become the latest victims of the economic slowdown.
Ironically, as private preschools are facing falling demand, government-funded facilities are being put under increasing pressure. Public preschools are being forced to handle more children even as they are criticised as inadequate and underfunded.
DOING IT TOUGH
In low-income communities such as one located deep inside Soi Ruamrudee, most residents earn the minimum wage or less and parents struggle to make ends meet. Many still manage to pay for their child’s preschool education, but an increasing number cannot.
“Usually, if the children can wash their own bottoms, they are sent to the nursery,” said Ruamrudee community leader Sontaya Phengphol.
Just 100m from the Phloenchit BTS station, the Ruamrudee known to most people is an upmarket area, complete with five-star hotels and colonial-style mansions. But two kilometres into the soi, beside the Holy Redeemer Church, another side of the story emerges.
The community was formed during the reign of King Rama VI in the early 20th century, but the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration officially declared it a slum in 1992, when the number of houses grew to 133.
A path for bicycles runs above a canal that separates the community from the rest of the soi, stretching about a kilometre between Witthayu Road and the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre.
The 8.5-rai area sits on land belonging to the Crown Property Bureau and it’s quiet there on weekdays as the majority of residents have left for work, mostly as street vendors, maids, security guards and in construction.
Despite the harsh living conditions, Mr Sontaya estimates 80% of the children in the community receive a form of early childhood care and education outside the home.
“The rest can’t afford it because they are poor and have a lot of kids — some mums get pregnant as early as 14,” he said. “You also have kids who are forced to drop out of nursery. For their families, getting rich is when they are offered odd jobs or win the lottery, but it’s not permanent. Most of the time they are permanently poor.”
Areerat Amornat, 28, is one of those who keeps her child at home out of necessity. Her husband earns a meagre income as a fruit seller, and after giving birth to her third child six months ago, she decided to pull her three-year-old son out of a government childcare centre.
Even though the centre charges parents only 300 baht per month — the equivalent of the minimum daily wage — Ms Areerat still considers it a burden, especially since she no longer works and has to stay home to take care of her three children.
Her eldest son is in sixth grade at a state school. “But I teach them how to write at home,” she said.
Kittimas Nursery is among the private nurseries that were once popular among the residents of the Soi Ruamrudee community. It is run by the Kittimas family, who turned their house into a preschool 40 years ago.
But dwindling income from low enrolment has pushed back plans to renovate the nursery. Ms Kittimas had planned to install air-conditioners and raise the ground level to prevent flooding, but was hit with another problem: since the land belongs to the Crown Property Bureau, permission needs to be sought for any structural changes.
Kittimas Nursery operates 12 hours a day, from 6.30am, providing children with three meals, toys and a place to nap. It is registered under the Social Development and Welfare Department.
According to the Office of the Education Council (Onec), 76% of children were enrolled in preschool educational programmes in 2013.
In theory, anyone can open a nursery for children aged up to two years old, with the approval of the Social Development and Welfare Department. Children are then generally enrolled in kindergarten from the age of three.
Great leveller: Weerachart Kilenthong says early education can even out income inequality.
But Onec deputy director Tipsuda Sumethsenee estimates there are tens of thousands of unregistered nurseries of low quality that work their way around the law by setting up venues with fewer than six children.
“With about 800,000 children born each year, it is impossible that there are only 1,000 registered private nurseries in the country,” Ms Tipsuda said.
Sirirat Ularntinon, a child psychiatrist at the Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health, said she sees many cases of children aged two and under who are abused or mistreated.
“The problem is that a lot of parents pay for someone to look after their child and unregistered private care is not regulated,” she said.
Families in Soi Ruamrudee who can afford it send their children to the Mappasorn childcare centre, where tuition fees start at 2,500 baht per month and the students wear light green uniforms.
The centre, which has been operating for 13 years, has 44 children and five teachers.
“There is a large demand for the limited amount of students we accept each year, as we also prep them for first grade enrolment at other schools,” said Somporn Imcharoenkul, its owner and operator.
While many low-income residents in the Soi Ruamrudee community live in extended families of up to four generations, others who have migrated from other provinces have no family support and have little choice but to leave their children at childcare centres while they try to make money.
Street vendor Urai Kajornsat, 46, leaves her four-year-old son at the Bongai childcare centre while she sells squid during the day. “I don’t have any relatives to look after him, so I send him to school so he can become smart and strong,” she said.
Her son Plamoek — which translates as “squid” — was enrolled at the centre when he was 21 months old. Located on the first floor of a community flat, the Bongai preschool child development centre is run by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
Because of an increase in immigrant workers in the past few years, the centre is seeing more children who come and go, whose parents mostly live in nearby construction camps.
It now has more than 70 students, ranging from two to four, divided into seven classrooms. At state childcare centres like this, the fees are more affordable at 300 baht per month, with Pathumwan district subsidising milk and food costs.
Although the centre opens from 7.30am until 3pm, parents can leave their children after hours for an extra fee, which is split among the teachers. After 7pm, the children stay at the teacher’s house, where the parents can pick them up.
“It’s a way to buy time to seek income. The poorer you are, the more you need to look for ways to earn money,” said Weerachart Kilenthong, director of the Research Institute for Policy Evaluation and Design at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
“It frees up the labour supply, especially women who don’t have time to take care of their children.”
THE LOWER RUNG
Praewta taught at a preschool community centre for the mentally disabled for more than two years before resigning because she claimed children there were being mistreated.
“Children with special needs often make loud noises or scream when they want something, and the teachers got annoyed,” said Ms Praewta, not her real name, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. She also has a son who is mentally disabled.
“The teachers would grab anything they could reach — a plastic cup, for instance — and use it to hit the child on the head. It happened from time to time and they got angry when I told them not to hurt the kids. They said it’s none of my business.”
Ms Praewta’s disapproval of the treatment of some children and her frequent clashes with other teachers led to her being treated badly and she eventually resigned.
She is now doing a three-year course for a diploma in preschool education at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, but plans to switch subjects as she is no longer a teacher.
“I am very sad. This was what I was meant to do. My dream has been shattered,” said Ms Praewta, who is now a street vendor at Bo Bae market.
For low-income workers like Ms Praewta, sending her child to the preschool community centre she used to work for is her only choice.
She can afford the fees of 600 baht per month, but she fears her son may be abused.
“I don’t know where else to take him. I hope that at least my child doesn’t die,” she said.
Mr Weerachart, who has carried out research into early childhood development, said preschool education is the best way of lowering income inequality at all educational levels.
He cites the HighScope Perry Preschool project, which was conducted in the United States in the 1960s. An evaluation into the long-term impact of early education found children eventually benefitted from increased earnings and reduced criminal behaviour.
Mr Weerachart said the government still pays too little attention to preschool development, which is evident in the figures: it spends only 11.75% of its education budget on early childhood education compared with about 20% in countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
According to the Quality Learning Foundation, the cost of early childhood education is the lowest of all levels, averaging at 23,282 baht per child per year compared with 37,194 baht for primary school, 26,332 baht for high school and 24,933 baht for vocational school.
“The younger the child is, the more the investment should be, but what the government is doing is the opposite,” Mr Weerachart said. “With substandard childcare centres located upcountry and in slum communities, you are creating inequality from the age of three.”
A LONG WAY TO GO
In 2007 when the Education Ministry set out a 10-year policy and strategy plan for early childhood care and development, they described the situation at the time as a “crisis for those in early childhood”.
They warned children aged up to five faced delayed development, while nurseries lacked in quality and standards, and there was no system for effective and continuous monitoring.
Because early childhood care and development is the responsibility of four different ministries — Education, Interior, Public Health, and Social Development and Human Security — the National Committee on Early Childhood Development was established in 2008, with the prime minister as the chair, to enhance cooperation between the agencies.
Rangsun Wiboonuppatum, an education officer at the United Nations Children’s Fund, welcomed the emphasis the government placed on early childhood development, but stressed the need to extend the age group receiving services up to eight, so the transition from early childhood education to primary education is seamless. “We also need to strengthen communication with parents and caregivers so that the importance of early childhood care and education are well and widely understood,” he said.
Meanwhile Mr Sontaya, the Ruamrudee community head, sits outside his house watching residents cross the bridge over the canal on their return home from work. The 62-year-old is seeing large numbers of immigrants flowing into the community where he has lived in all his life, with 40% of houses now rented to outsiders for 1,500-2,500 baht per month.
Despite the problems with nursery education, the community, which houses 600 residents excluding immigrants, currently has only four children who did not progress to high school after primary education. But Mr Sontaya believes expectations should be higher.
“A civilised country should provide free preschool education in order to have high-quality citizens to compete with countries like Laos and Cambodia,” he said. “The education minister should be an educator. You need to put the right man in the right job.”
Home from home: Bongai preschool opens from 7.30am until 3pm, and parents can leave their children with teachers after hours for an extra fee.
Cost of quality: Somporn Imcharoenkul runs the Mappasorn childcare centre, where tuition fees start at 2,500 baht per month. The centre accommodates 44 children and has five teachers.
Just passing through: Because of an increase in immigrant workers in recent years, Bongai preschool is seeing more children who come and go. Their parents mostly live in nearby construction camps.