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UNICEF brings schools to Thai hill tribe children

© UNICEF Thailand/2008/Thomas
Teacher Atiya Jinawong with two of her students at the Baan Dong Mafai School in Thailand. While the hill tribe schools lack the facilities of larger schools, they make up for it through the close relationships between teachers, students and families.

By Nattha Keenapan

BAN MAE SURIN NOI, Thailand, 17 December 2008 – In the highlands of Thailand's Mae Hong Son province there is a newly constructed three-room structure. It is a simple building, made of rough plank floors, partial bamboo walls and a tin roof, but it offers the children in the area something they did not have before: a formal primary education.

The 20 children who attend the Baan Mae Surin Noi School are ethnic Karens – members of Thailand's hill tribes - and all of them lacked a place to receive a formal education before the school was built.

The school is one of 17 new schools in the northwestern province of Thailand that are being operated by the Ministry of Education under a UNICEF-supported project.

Bringing the schools to the children

The project began in 2005, when a UNICEF-supported survey found that more than a thousand children from the region's hill tribes were not attending primary school. The initial survey findings led to surveys in other districts, all of which had similar findings.

© UNICEF Thailand/2008/Thomas
Children exercise, dance and sing in their classrooms. Due to limited resources in the hill tribe schools, children from different age groups learn together.

"We walked house to house, mountain to mountain, and knocked on every door to see if the children were in school or not," said Mae Hong Son Education Service Assistant Director Suraphan Suebfak.

The surveys found that parents were keeping their children home because the schools were too far away. And the remoteness of the hill tribes, coupled with inadequate roads, made it difficult to build proper facilities specifically for them.

But educators decided then that if the children couldn't come to the schools, they would bring the schools to the children. 

"The most important thing is to get children into school and to get them learning," said UNICEF Thailand Chief of Education Rangsun Wiboonuppatum.

Primary education is crucial

This year, there are 41 teachers instructing 472 primary students in the 17 new schools. Almost half of the teachers are themselves from ethnic hill tribes and speak both Thai and ethnic languages.

© UNICEF Thailand/2008/Thomas
Chonnika Mekseesuay waits for school to start in Baan Mae Surin Noi, a remote Karen village in Khunyuam district, Thailand.

The goals for the hill tribe schools are to ensure that all the students are able to read and write Thai, and do basic mathematics. The students are also taught to use natural resources wisely in order to protect their environment, and to preserve their ethnic traditions and culture.

"It is crucial for hill tribe children to get a primary education and to learn Thai and basic math," Rangsun said. "Without these basic skills, it is very difficult for them to communicate with other people in Thailand and to earn a living when they grow up. Some of the children are now able to help their parents communicate with doctors or nurses when they go to hospitals."

"I'm glad that we have our own school now," said Boonsong, age 12, a Grade 6 student. "Now we get to come to school every day. In the past whenever the teacher wasn't here, we usually just played all day or helped our parents in the fields."

Boonsong plans to continue his studies at the university level, and wants to become a teacher so that he can help a new generation of children.



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