WASHINGTON, D.C. — A high-quality education in Thailand has often only been available to the elite, and people living in remote areas struggle to finish primary school. This is especially true in the Omkoi district in Chiang Mai, located in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand. OmKoi is heavily forested and the Karen people who reside there face economic difficulties due to rough terrain, scarce arable land and lack of modern farming technologies. The main hub for education in the region is the Mae Fah Luang Highland Community Learning Center. There are 112 such centers and students are taught by a “Kru Tom,” a teacher that rides their motorcycle up and down the hill each day to reach these remote schools in Thailand. However, these types of teachers are far and few and often neglect their students for months on end.
The Teacher Shortage Issue
Most schools located in Thailand’s mountainous regions are desperate for teachers, and struggle to attract teachers of quality in particular. The remote schools also struggle to pay these teachers as most of these communities are on the brink of poverty. Ampai Maneewan, the Director of Mae Teun Noi School in OmKoi District of Chiang Mai, has long pleaded with the governor of Chiang Mai to help support local schools and recruit staff. However, most teachers refuse to work in such remote locations and tend to leave after a short term.
Even worse, some of the teachers the government sent to these remote schools have been alcoholics and drug addicts who have physically abused local students. It takes years to find replacement teachers, and discouraged parents in the community end up pulling their kids out of school. Education in Thailand is a critical component of poverty reduction, however, geographical and structural barriers to education continue to persist.
The Solution of Kindness and Sacrifice
Although rare, there have been some teachers who have sacrificed greatly to live and teach in remote schools in the mountains of Thailand. In 2020, Pam, a Karen woman from Khun Yuam district, left her job as a domestic worker in Bangkok to teach in her village in Chiang Mai. She had to forego her salary of 9,000 baht per month and settle for a wage of 3,500 baht per month, which is a drastic plunge from the minimum wage mandate of 15,000 baht. Another example is a Professor at George Washington University, Christina Fink, who The Borgen Project interviewed. Professor Fink specializes in Equitable Development in Southeast Asia and pursued research in Myanmar and Thailand. Local NGOs, such as The Karen Hill Tribe Trust, are also avid supporters who provide transport, school lunches, scholarships and dorm facilities for Karen students in Thailand.
Insight From Christina Fink
Through a non-formal Hill tribe education program, Christina Fink was able to teach at remote schools in Northern Thailand. She lived amongst the Karen community, an ethnic Hill tribe. The non-formal education program delivered a simpler version of the centralized Thai curriculum taught in main cities like Bangkok. The program used special textbooks that used images of upland people as opposed to city folk in Bangkok. It also adapted the subjects to life in the mountains, including topics such as farming to make the syllabus more relatable for the local population. The program also wanted to focus on community engagement and many learning assignments given to students required them to ask their elders about the family history or Karen culture.
“It is important to have teachers from within the community,” shared Fink. “Teachers from the same community better understand the community and will talk to them like equals, parents are also more likely to feel comfortable sending their kids to school,” she added.
When asked about the key structural issues she noticed regarding education in Thailand, Fink mentioned that although costs were a big issue, the Thai government has since taken concrete measures to invest in public education. Education until the 10th grade now receives funding from the government, and the government recognizes the importance of education in poverty alleviation and Thailand’s overall success. She also emphasized that education in remote areas of Thailand should be more inclusive of the various dialects that people speak in different parts of the country. In other words, a more flexible curriculum that is more adaptable to local culture is more likely to be successful.
Differences Between Urban and Remote Students
Not only is development needed to further education and reduce poverty, but “equitable” development is key. Unfortunately, a report by the Program of International Assessment (PISA) conducted in 2018 which measured the science, math and reading skills of 15-year-old children in Thailand showed that students attending urban schools significantly outperformed those in remote schools. Furthermore, the performance gap between students from the top 25% of households for income and the bottom 25% has increased from 59% to 69% since the last report in 2015. These disparities are especially obvious in subjects such as Mathematics and English, with many students in remote schools unable to speak or understand the English language.
Education’s Role in Poverty
One should not underestimate or overlook the role of education in poverty reduction. Access to basic education has a positive impact on one’s income range and improves chances of better job opportunities. According to the World Bank, “The global average private rate of return to schooling is 10 percent per year of schooling.” This starts with providing students in remote areas of Thailand with access to high-quality education, in addition to the recruitment of highly qualified, committed, teaching professionals, preferably from within the local community. This starts with parents in local communities believing in the power of their child’s education and providing unwavering support. If more individuals in remote areas of Thailand have access to high-quality education, they can take the skills they learned in school and become financially independent, supporting both their families and communities.
– Samyudha Rajesh