02 December 2010

Orchard schools branch out

Some 50 migrant children receive a primary education at an orange orchard in Chiang Mai's Fang district.  For many of the children, it is the only “school” they have ever known. © UNICEF Thailand/2010/M. Thomas

By Nattha Keenapan

(The story was published in Outlook, Bangkok Post on December 2, 2010)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Inside one of the many sprawling orange orchards that stretch  across northern Chiang Mai’s Fang district near the border with Myanmar stands a simple, one-story building with a rough concrete floor, sticks of bamboo for walls and a thatch roof.  Once used by the orchard’s owner to store sacks of fertilizer and farm implements, it is now utilized for something much more precious and important – a place where migrant children can receive an education.
One recent stormy morning, as a heavy rain swept across row after row of orange trees, the voices of some 50 ethnic Shan children echoed inside the building as they practiced the Thai alphabet, played with recycled and makeshift toys and learned how to make Shan doughnuts.

For most of these  children, whose parents fled the poverty and deprivation of Myanmar’s Shan State to seek work and a better life in the orchards, the old storage building, now called the  Baan Mae Soon Noi Centre, is the only “school” they have ever known.

“I never knew what a school looked like until I came here,” said Din Loongchan, 13, a third grader who four years ago spent weeks crossing over the border to Thailand with his family.  “But I always imagined it would be a place where there are many children. And I was right.”

Fang district is one of Thailand’s largest orange producing areas and a magnet for migrants from Myanmar's Shan State.  Over the past few years, UNICEF Thailand has supported the establishment of seven schools inside the Fang’s many orchards, and they now provide some 300 migrant children with a basic primary school education.

“A few years ago, most of these children had no opportunity to receive an education,” said Adul Duangdeetaweeratana, Project Manager of Group for Children, a non-government organization that started the orchard schools project and continues to manage it.  “By the age of 10, they would already be in the orchards helping their parents with work.  I knew we had to do something for these children. ”

Migrant children account for one of the largest number of some 900,000 children of primary school age who are either not in school or who enroll late, according to a major household survey carried out by the National Statistical Office in 2006.  Under Thai law, all children in Thailand -- including migrant, non-Thai and children without legal status -- have the right to an education and are eligible to attend a state school. Yet only 75,000 migrant children are currently in school, according to the Office of the Basic Education Commission.

Studies on migrant children’s access to education in Thailand show that many migrant families  do not send their children to school due to fear of being arrested, and as a result a  large number  of migrant children end up working instead of going to school.  At the same time, differences in culture, language and educational background are among the reasons migrant children do not attend state schools.  In addition, ingrained prejudice and discrimination towards migrant children, as well as limited financial and human resources for education in Thailand in general, are additional barriers to migrant children accessing an education in the Thai system.

At Ban Nong Ngoo Learm Centre, another school in the orchards for migrant children, the names of parents who have donated 50-100 baht to the school are posted on a bulletin board.  Many migrant parents give some of the wages they earn working in the orchards to support the construction of the schools, which usually have only a couple of classrooms that are shared by children of different grade levels and ages.

Ethics is among many subjects that migrant children learn at Baan Nong Ngu Learm Centre. Children from different grade levels have to learn together in the same classroom due to limited space.  © UNICEF Thailand/2010/M. Thomas

Despite their lack of educational resources and humble appearance, these schools provide the students with the all-important opportunity to learn to read and write Thai and do basic math, and also teach them the Shan language and traditional Shan arts and culture. 

Teachers at the seven orchard schools speak both the Thai and Shan languages, and five schools offer informal education classes at night for migrant teenagers and adults who have to work in the orchards during the day.

Many students, including Din, regularly apply their Thai and math lessons in their daily lives by, for example, helping their parents communicate with doctors and nurses when they go to the hospital, reading medicine labels and calculating their parents’ wages.

“The children should be able to adapt what they learn in class in their daily lives while not forgetting their ethnic traditions and culture,” said Rangsun Wiboonuppatum, Chief of Education for UNICEF Thailand.  “Schools for migrant children have to fit their culture, lifestyle and educational background, and that their teachers have to be sensitive and understand the problems many of these children have faced, and still face, in their lives.”

To ensure the quality of education at the orchard schools, it is extremely important that education authorities be involved, Rangsun added. In 2008, the orchard schools became part of the government’s pilot programme for migrant schools, and began receiving academic and evaluation support as well as training for teachers from Chiang Mai’s Education Service Area Office (ESAO) 3.

In addition, the government endorsement of the schools has helped eliminate misunderstanding and mistrust among local community members towards the migrant population.

“At first, [migrant] parents did not want to send their children to schools because of resistance from people in the local communities.” said Pranee Chaiya, a teacher at Baan Mae Soon Noi Centre.

Pranee, who walked house-to -house inside the orchards to ask migrant parents to send their children to school, said the orchard schools were previously perceived as ‘illegal’ and a ‘threat’ to national security. Many local people believed the schools were related to a political group or some religious group in Myanmar.

The support of education authorities has not only helped increase the enrolment rate at the schools, but it has also made life easier for migrant students who have to move when their families seek work elsewhere. The Chiang Mai ESAO 3 now issues a letter certifying the student’s academic level, a crucial document needed when student’s move and seek to enroll  at a new school.

Families moving in search of employment is a common challenge to ensuring the continued education of migrant children, and each time a family moves it increase the chance of their children not returning to school.  Every year, a large number of migrant workers leave Fang district to search for work in the city of Chiang Mai, most of whom are employed as construction workers.

In 2008, Chiang Mai ESAO 1 made the Wat Papao School in the city of Chiang Mai into a pilot school for migrant children from rural areas.   The school, located inside Papao Temple -- the only Shan temple in the heart of the city – is to date the only school in the city where they can receive both a basic primary education as well as instruction on the Shan language and Shan arts and culture.

The curriculum at the Wat Papao School has been adapted to ensure that migrant children moving to the city from rural areas can continue their studies, and its main goal is to ensure that the children have the skills and knowledge needed to continue at Thai schools or take advantage of non-formal education opportunities, Apichat Rattanayanyong, Deputy Director of Chiang Mai ESAO 1 said.

All of Wat Papao’s 155 students are ethnic Shan. Many of the students came to Chiang Mai from the orchard schools in Fang and are currently studying at the kindergarten to Grade 3 level.  However, a majority of the students are years older than their grade level due to getting a late start with their educations.

Sunisa Kamloo, 13, a first grader at Wat Papao School who migrated to Thailand from Shan State four years ago, said she was happy to be at the school and to be able to study both the Thai and Shan languages.

“It would be hard for me to go to a Thai school because I would be too old and big compared with other first graders,” Sunisa said.

At school Sunisa has also learned a traditional and popular Shan dance called the “Nok Kingkala”, which is usually performed for Shan migrants visiting the temple on special occasions, such as the end of Buddhist Lent. As much as she enjoys learning her ethnic language and culture, Sunisa is determined to complete Grade 6 and continue her education in Thailand.

UNICEF’s  Rangsun said additional  schools like Wat Papao School need to be opened with government support in order to provide more  migrant children with the opportunity for an education and to ensure  they are ready to further their studies in the Thai system.

“Every child, regardless of race, religion, nationality or economic status has the right to an education,” said Rangsun. “And every child, including migrant children who are so vulnerable to exploitation and abuse if they do not get an education, should be ensured that right.”

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