Friday, 4 September 2009

Thai Education - A Small Gleam of Light

Any headmaster would glow with pride at the achievement of his school in running so joyful and exuberant a sports festival as the one Cat and I have just attended at the small primary school here in our remote Surin village.

I sometimes read dire things about Thai education in the media… that levels of achievement in Thai schools are depressingly poor compared to those in similar countries and that Thai children don’t read books. Universities are said to be dismal temples to rote learning and conformity where smart student uniforms and glossy degree ceremonies are more important than academic rigour or creative thinking.

On these things I can hardly comment… all I know is that our village school is a delightful and happy place which is just how a primary school should be!

It’s a small school with about a hundred children aged from four to twelve. Funding is short, the wooden upper storey of the building is literally collapsing and the children are all from poor rice farming families. But it’s full of energy and fun, the classrooms are bright with childrens’ work covering the walls and the teachers are gentle and dedicated. I’m sure that the kids will later look back on their years here as a golden time before they faced the uncertainties of finding a life as adults in a place where farming is viable only if you have enough land.

The annual two day sports festival that’s just been held was a big event involving the whole community and it was fun all the way.

It started early with raising and saluting the Flag, followed by a tribute to the King and then a parade.

The first event was a display of dancing by some ladies of the village. I’m so glad this was traditional and dignified and not a silly imitation of the modern pop dancing that’s inescapable on Thai television.

Then came a display of dancing by some of the oldest girls. It’s hard to believe that they’re eleven and twelve, something that perhaps reflects on poor nutrition.

They were then followed by another troupe of girls all dressed in pink.

The performers then all assembled in front of the teachers and VIPs for congratulations on the work they’d done, before the running races got under way.

The children all seem to be tiny but they ran incredibly fast. An over-sixties race was devised to drag me into the limelight, my only problem being that half the field were in their forties. I managed to hit the tape first with my hand but this didn’t count so the little girl in the pretty dress brought a silver medal for me and not the gold!

The second day saw a series of novelty events and races in the morning followed by football on the afternoon. I missed Cat playing for one of the womens’ sides but I watched the mens’ match later. And was it fast and furious… far more entertaining than a dull World Cup match moving glacially towards a penalty shoot-out.

That evening there was a big party in the school hall with food for everyone, a live band and presentation of all the trophies for the two days of events. It was a riotous ending to a memorable event and it went on quite late.

The whole thing reminded me that one thing the Thais are particularly good at is throwing a party and making it riotous all the way. Fun it was but the sports festival was also important as institution building for the school and for developing community spirit within the village.

I have no way of knowing how good the school is in academic terms but that probably is not its only or principal focus. I’m sure the children generally leave the school with basic literacy and numeracy, also knowing their ‘abc’ and able to say ‘siddow pree’ and ‘stannup pree’ and all that is a substantial achievement. In any even, too academic approach is probably irrelevant for the village children.

It seems that Thai education is not over-academic but looks to wider aims of community and nation building, of developing collective responsibility in its pupils, protecting them from the dangers of drug taking and promotes team spirit and good health through sporting activities. And these things our school seems to do very well indeed.

I like and admire the dedication of the teachers to the children and that’s why Cat and I have worked hard, initially with a generous Japanese friend, to provide school lunches for the children. While not exactly malnourished, these little Thai school girls and boys are evidently very tiny and a large proportion of them are in fact under the correct body weight for their ages.

As official funding does not run to providing lunches throughout the year, the children just bringing a small quantity of rice with them to school, Cat and I have been collecting donations from friends and readers of this blog to make sure they have a proper cooked meal with meat and vegetables every day. (See my blog articles, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, 12 Dec 2008, and ‘Thai School Girls Are So Appealing’, 19 Jan 2009.)

A second project has been to build a large chicken shed for egg production. The chickens are now laying about a hundred eggs a day but the money to pay for the chickens and for feed has been borrowed and needs to be repaid. Thanks to readers of this blog, some donations have come in but we still have a little way to go. (See my blog article ‘A Quick Trick Chick Factory’, 13 August 2009.)

Living as I do in this village community, I feel it’s important to make a contribution of some sort and how better a way than this. The school is a real credit to the teachers and to everyone else and is worthy of whatever help we can give.

It’s a bright spark of light that counters the doom-laden criticisms one too often hears about education in Thailand and I love it because it's such a happy place.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog August 2009


mike said...

Andrew, I am just curious who establishes the "correct body weight"? Is it set according to western standards, or are there different ratings for different ethnic groups? Obviously Asians are generally shorter and, dare I say, slimmer than westerners; do the tables take this into account?

Well done on your efforts to assist with the school, and your integration into their activities.

Mike C.

mike said...

This link is of interest to BMI considerations:

Mike C.

Thai Girl said...

It was the headmaster who told me, if I remember, that 45 percent of the chldren are underweight.

All credit to the school system, they monitor their weight and development and have a ceremonial tooth brushing after they've had the lunches we provide or them! So I'm sure the size criteria must be given to the teachers by the Education Ministry, as supplied by the Health Ministry and probably derived, as you suggest, from the WHO Global Database for Body Mass Index.

Yes, Thais are small but like the Japanese they'll probably catch up pretty quickly with better nutrition (then die of diabetes and heart disease from eating junk foods!)

A few local Thais who are better fed are several sizes bigger than than the school kids you see in my photos.It's amazing the difference.

I'm sure the WHO has to update its database from time to time as Asians won't be small forever.


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This must have been such a greatly nice activity! Due to all kid's energy, I am pretty sure that you saw a lot of action in there.