Word of mouth in Bangkok: Asian ex-tiger has problems with school positions - of all kinds

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The Independent Online
SINCE THAILAND'S economy went into a tailspin last year, triggering the Asian financial crisis, few people have remained untouched by job losses and drastically reduced incomes, including the nation's schoolchildren. According to the National Education Council, about 250,000 have been forced to drop out so far because their parents can no longer afford to send them to school. Enrolments at upper secondary level are 22.7 per cent lower than targets, and schools and colleges are owed a startling pounds 29 million in unpaid fees.

The introduction in June of a pounds 17 million free scholarship programme, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), has until now failed to stem the flow of children out of classrooms, often into low paid jobs to bolster their family's income. The fact that the programme was introduced a month after term began certainly didn't help. Poor publicity also meant that a large chunk of the target audience wasn't even aware the scholarships existed.

Until last month, when the Education Ministry finally put some adverts in the press, fewer than half the official drop-outs had applied, and none of them had seen a bean, according to a source at the ADB. A trickle of scholarships is finally being released but the Education Ministry and the Fiscal Policy Office are bickering over who is to blame for the four month delay.

Thailand's education system is blamed by many for the current economic mess it has found itself in. Back in the early Nineties, it had one of the lowest secondary school enrolment rates in Asia resulting in an under- educated workforce lacking in basic skills. The National Corruption Commission, now de rigeur in this part of the world,last year ranked the Ministry of Education among the most corrupt of government ministries.

Calls for reform may finally be being heeded, in the shape of the National Education Bill which was hurried for its first reading before the final session of parliament on 21 October. Its central plank is the decentralisation of the entire education system and a scaling down of the ministry, something the Asian Development Bank emphasised when agreeing its pounds 330 million social sector loan.

Degrees for sale

BUT IT'S not only the men from the ministry who face losing their jobs. In some institutions, staff outnumber students and 70,000 primary school teachers can already expect to be without jobs next year, including about 30,000 newly trained graduates. Plans for five new teacher training colleges to add to the existing 114 should be wisely shelved.

Given that schools and colleges are so vastly overstaffed and wages so paltry, it's perhaps not surprising that some teachers have been turning to less honourable ways of lining their pockets.

Last month, a huge scandal hit the Rajabhat Institute, the country's largest breeding ground for teachers, with 36 campuses nationwide, producing about 12,000 graduates a year. It began when a lecturer complained in a newsletter that a colleague had been extorting money from students in return for grades. That prompted former and current students from other campuses to come forward, alleging that they too had paid for grades. Not only money changed hands, but anything from electric kettles to shirts.

The article's author refused to name the offender on his campus, but soon enough Assistant Professor Wannakit Rattanakorn came forward to "clear his name", admitting that he had accepted money and gifts, such as a video recorder, but used them to benefit the students and buy other teaching aids. "I knew from my students that they hired others to do their reports, but I told them not to spend so much money," he told The Nation.

He later announced at a press conference that his father had threatened to commit suicide if he was found guilty. So far, three committees have found him guilty of committing a serious disciplinary offence, but no news of his father as yet.

The scandal prompted a hasty survey which revealed that some students pay their lecturers, buy them gifts, throw birthday parties for them, and even sleep with them to ensure they pass their exams, or merely to get out of writing essays.

Sex education

TWO HEADMASTERS have recently been accused of even more heinous crimes against their pupils, prompting a shake-up of disciplinary procedures for teachers accused of sexually abusing and harassing their students. One head allegedly raped a pupil, who became pregnant and had an abortion. He denied the allegation and was back in post before a thorough investigation. Another has been transferred after 80 teachers at his school accused him of sexually harassing female pupils in his office, which they say was equipped with karaoke, a bed and pornographic video tapes... and he thought he could get away with it.

School for scandal

ON THE same unhappy theme, the Office of the National Primary Education Commission has come up with the idea of a school for rape victims. Students who are too ashamed to continue going to their own schools will, it believes, be willing to attend a school to advertise exactly what they have undergone. A well-intentioned idea, but let's wait and see what the concerned agencies have to say.

Head off the critics

THE EDUCATION Ministry got a new head last month after the previous incumbent resigned on grounds of ill-health. The fact that Chumpol Silpa-archa had had a public falling out with his brother, who himself resigned from the ministry, is what the public perceives as the real reason. Or could it be the drubbing he received at the hands of academics who accused him of failing to improve education during his nine-month stint?

One academic appeared confused. In August, he told The Nation that Chumpol was not competent or knowledgeable enough for the task. In October, he told The Bangkok Post that no one in the Prime Minister's party besides Mr Chumpol fitted the post: "He did his job well, with principles and transparency."