Anirut Thongdech has a broad smile when he learns that he will have a chance to return to school this term after having dropped out for two years.
The 11-year-old boy, also known as Saming, was forced to leave school due to his parents’ inability to afford his education, a problem in Thai society that has worsened since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Saming was born to a family living a hand-to-mouth existance. His parents earn money by collecting recyclables and selling them to junkyards. He has two siblings, a 14-year-old brother, who dropped out of Grade 4 three years ago for the same reason as Saming, and a two-year-old sister.
The family had no place to live, so the abbot of Wat Trangkhapum Putthawat, a temple in Trang province’s Kantang district, let the family reside at the temple and ordained the eldest son. The son brings food to his family after daily alms rounds in which monks collect food or offerings from followers nearby.
With the help of the director of Wat Trangkhapum Putthawat Municipal School, near the temple, Saming was offered the opportunity to be a Grade 1 student again.
School director Kalasit Petkong told the Bangkok Post that many students had to give up school during the Covid-19 pandemic after their parents lost their jobs.
Saming is one of those students. His parents became unemployed after the pandemic hit, losing their home and forcing them to make a living by collecting and selling rubbish, Mr Kalasit said.
“We offered Saming school uniforms and some money for stationery and textbooks,” he said. “We would like to help as much as we can to get him back to school.”
The temple school is small, with 97 kindergarten–Grade 6 students and 18 staff. External factors, such as finance and family conditions, still disrupt the children’s attendance.
Chatree Bunmee, the school’s deputy director, said 60–70% of the students come from broken homes. Most parents do not earn much and are likely to relocate with their children to wherever their next job might be.
Mr Chatree said the school has offered his parents work as vegetable farmers at the school so they can use its unused land to grow plants and sell them to earn money.
“We also took Saming’s older brother, Smith, back to school. He is now studying in Grade 4,” he said. “Even though Smith is a novice, the school welcomes him together with his monkhood.”
Many teachers at the schools and locals in Kantang district have donated small amounts of money to help Saming’s family get by. However, the school director acknowledges that temporary subsidies can only keep their heads above water.
He said that the Department of Local Administration offers stipends for low-income households whose members make less than 3,000 baht per month each.
Another stipend, listed under the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) project, also provides 3,000 baht per student per year, he said.
“The school can ease student burden but state welfare will better prevent dropouts in the long run,” he said.
Increased dropout rate
In March, Unicef Thailand pointed to a study on youths who were “not in education, employment or training (Neet)”, which found that 70% of students who drop out have no plans to further their education.
Meanwhile, some 70% of drop-outs are young women who quit school to take care of their families, it said.
Data from the Equitable Education Fund (EEF) also shows that out of the 7 million students in both public and private schools, over 800,000 are from extremely poor families, making them at risk of dropping out.
Students from extremely poor families are also excluded from education by other factors. A survey by EEF found that many students do not have access to clean water, electricity, transport or the internet. Some are required to stay home to take care of disabled or unemployed family members, it said.
Even though the nation’s 15-year compulsory education programme claims to be free of charge, students and parents are still required to pay additional expenses.
Kraiyos Patrawart, EEF managing director, said parents are faced with application and admission fees on top of the cost of uniforms and stationery.
“Many families have to borrow from pawn shops or loan sharks before the term starts,” he said. “The data shows that students from extremely poor families are often slow to enrol in school despite their age because it takes a long time for their parents to save up money for school-related expenses.”
Such expenses can dissuade low-income parents from enrolling their children at all, he said.
‘Four uniforms in 1 week’
Mr Kraiyos said school regulations need to be less restrictive and the education system decentralised to prevent students from dropping out.
“Education should be more lenient for students from unprivileged backgrounds,” he said. “Some schools require their students to wear a basic uniform, a gym uniform, a scout uniform and, in some provincial schools, an ethnic-inspired uniform. That is four sets of uniforms in one week.”
He said schools should offer alternatives for students with different needs, and should be allowed to raise funds for students from low-income families.
Changes appropriate for provincial schools can be quickly endorsed if the government decentralises the system, he added.
Provincial authorities, such as the governor and district and village chiefs, can approach the matter by drawing on their knowledge of the needs and difficulties of locals.
Mr Kraiyos said schools in different provinces do not share the same challenges. Low-income families certainly have different needs in different areas, he said.
“The EEF is advocating for school autonomy,” he said. “We believe local authorities can reduce inequality [in the system].”
Aiming for zero dropouts
The election has brought hope of positive change in many aspects of society, including education. However, Thais are still unsure when the next government can take office.
The name of the next education minister still remains unknown, yet the EEF has proposed three policies which it says should be adopted urgently by the next government.
Mr Kraiyos said the EEF focuses on the concept of universal education security, which aims to provide free education from kindergarten to Grade 12, more leniency in schools and assistance in the system, and its decentralisation.
Education security needs to be guaranteed to prevent student drop-outs, it says. Mr Kraiyos said the CCT stipend only covers recipients in Grades 1–9.
The EEF proposes the new government not only extend the eligibility of CCT recipients but also raises the amount for the first time in 14 years.
A more lenient education system also is expected to offer alternatives to students, such as self-designed programmes or a national credit bank to allow students to study in any institution across Thailand any time they wish, to encourage life-long learning.
Mr Kraiyos said that more technologies will be applied to develop online learning platforms, a project which should be pushed along with government-funded internet and tablets for students.
Lastly, decentralisation of the system will contribute greatly to preventing students from dropping out. Local administrations can share their problems and mutual goals to improve the lives of students from underprivileged backgrounds.
Additionally, the EEF is pushing a provincial hub to manage human resource information in each area and help labourers stay competitive in the workforce.
Mr Kraiyos suggested the government promote a tax exemption for companies who may sponsor scholarships to students from low-income families, an incentive that would aid many students more quickly than the government’s funds.
“Thailand is the first country among developing nations to be officially an aged society. We cannot afford to have even a single dropout in our education system,” said Mr Kraiyos.