07 February 2015

Schools in the Orchard

A Thai teacher teaches migrant children basics of Thai language and their rights.
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Metee Thuentap

Story by Heamakarn Sricharatchanya / Photos by Metee Thuentap

This story was published in Bangkok Post newspaper on 7 February 2015

Chiang Mai, 1 February 2015 As the last rays of daylight are about to disappear, Aong Mooring, 17, wipes the sweat from his face and puts down his gardening tools in a shed. His long day of work in the orange orchards in Fang district of Chiang Mai has come to an end, and it is now time for something that he has been looking forward to all day – going to school.

The school Aong attends is not a typical one. The small building is situated in the heart of the orange orchards, and by day it serves as an early childhood education centre for the young offspring of the migrant workers. At night the building is transformed into a school for the young people and adults who work all day in the orchards. Small tables are placed in the middle of the classroom, and two old blackboards are hung on the walls. 

At around 6.30 p.m., young workers and adults begin arriving at the school by foot and on motorcycles, and within a half hour the classroom is filled with students. For most of the students, the orchard school is the only place where they will ever have the opportunity to get an education.

“Before going to the orchard school I had never received an education,” says Aong, who has finished Grade 6 and is currently studying non-formal education at the night school. “I am an only child and both my parents are illiterate. I wanted to be able to read and write so I can communicate with doctors when my parents are sick. I wanted to be able to read labels of pesticides so I know how to protect myself and my family when applying chemicals in the orchard.”

Aong Mooring, 17, works in the orchard during the day and goes to the orchard school at night.
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Metee Thuentap
There is a high demand for labourers in Fang district, which is home to dozens of orange orchards. This has drawn ethnic minorities from Myanmar, who cross the border in search of jobs and a better life in Thailand. Children accompanying parents usually have not gone to school before coming to Fang, and after settling in Thailand they often end up working in the orchards alongside their parents.

“All children in Thailand have the right to an education, regardless of their citizenship or civil registration status,” says Rangsun Wiboonuppatum, Chief of Education Section for UNICEF Thailand “Education will help children to develop to their full potential, contribute to the society and become good citizens.”

UNICEF works with the non-government organization Group for Children to provide education for children of ethnic minorities in Fang district so that they are equipped with the knowledge needed to survive and thrive in their new home.

Students listen carefully to their teacher at the orchard school.
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Metee Thuentap
Called the “Rai Som” model, the project began in 2007 with the objective of providing a basic education to migrant children whose parents work in the Fang district orchards. Under the project, there are three schools that provide early childhood and primary education for children between 2 to 14 years old during the day, and two night schools that provide a non-formal education for youth and adults who work in the orchards.

“The objective of the project is to provide basic education to migrant children so they are safe from harm and able to communicate in Thai in their daily life, such as when they go see doctors or to buy food,” says Adul Duangdeetaweeratana, the Project Manager of Group for Children. “We want them to use the knowledge they gain from the orchard school to make their time in Thailand as happy as possible.”

UNICEF and the Group for Children work with Chiang Mai Education Service Area Office 3 to provide an education for these children. Currently, there are about 270 children studying at the orchard schools, while 200 others have already graduated from them.

Sangdao Wongpa, one of the teachers at the orchard schools and known by the students as “Kru Dao”, recalls that it was not easy at the start to convince parents to bring their children to the schools. Parents felt that there was no need for the children to study because they would end up working in the orchards anyway.

“I had to walk from orchard to orchard and explain to the parents about the importance of education,” she says. “I told them the children will be outside the orchards as well so it is essential that they have the knowledge they need for survival.”

What is unique about the orchard schools is that they allow students to enrol at any time during the semester and to take examinations even if they miss a lot of classes.

“We have to be flexible because migrant children enter Thailand all year round, so we cannot turn them away for not registering by a certain date. If we don’t allow them to come to school, where will they go?” Kru Dao asks.

The author
Heamakarn Sricharatchanya is Senior Communication Assistant at UNICEF Thailand

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