When teacher Chiratip Kaewphaisan heard about the imminent visit by a team of enumerators collecting data in the Northeastern province of Nakhon Phanom for a national survey on children and women, she had just one question: “Will [relevant government agencies] send an expert or a tutor to offer a special class for the students?”
Chiratip, who teaches Thai literacy to Grade 4-6 students at Ban Ngiu Sang Kaeo School in Phon Sawan district, was right to be concerned. Around half of her fourth and fifth graders are unable to read or write properly, while five of her 21 sixth graders have inadequate literacy skills.
One of her students was to be tested in reading and numeracy skills that afternoon, as part of the data collection for the Thailand’s seventh Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, known as Thailand 2022 MICS – the country’s largest survey on children and women conducted every three years by the National Statistical Office (NSO) and supported by UNICEF.
The survey collects data on over 150 indicators on reproductive and maternal health, child health, nutrition and development, access to education, foundational learning skills, parental involvement and discipline, as well as early marriage, teen pregnancy and attitudes toward violence.
The targeted survey covers every corner of the nation – from easy-to-access Ban Ngiu village in Ban Kho, an hour’s drive from Muang Nakhon Phanom, to Khun Sa Nai village in the mountains of Mae Hong Son, accessible only by a two-hour drive on a winding muddy track from Chiang Mai. But distance or inaccessibility mean little to the hundreds of NSO enumerators, who are racing against time to collect data from over 34,000 households nationwide. The survey findings are expected to be released early next year.
“The survey is important because it covers almost every key indicator that will be crucial for shaping policy recommendations on children’s well-being,” said Chayanit Wangdee, Senior Programme Associate at UNICEF. “The new findings will not only provide policymakers with important insight on how COVID-19 has severely impacted children, but will also inform their solutions and approaches to key challenges facing children.”
Results from the previous survey in 2019 were promising in many aspects. Thailand 2019 MICS found that the percentage of children aged 3-5 attending early childhood development programmes continues to rise, from 60 per cent in 2005 to 84 per cent in 2012 and to 86 per cent in 2019. And as many as 92 per cent of children in Northeastern provinces attend an early childhood programme, the highest in the country.
The Northeastern provinces, especially Nakhon Phanom, also score high in the percentage of children entering primary school, at almost 96 per cent. That percentage gradually drops at the elementary and high school levels. Worryingly though, and reflecting teacher Chiratip’s concerns, the reading skills of students aged 7-14 in Nakhon Phanom are lower than the national average.
“I can’t figure out why some of my students can’t read or write properly,” said Chiratip, dismissing the claim made by some grandparents in the village that the lessons were too difficult for their children. “If the exercises were too difficult, how could other students in my class complete their homework?”
The ability to read and understand a simple text is one of the most fundamental skills a child can learn. Acquiring literacy in the early grades is crucial because doing so becomes more difficult in later grades, particularly for those who are lagging behind.
Tiam Sankhumpol, a father of two living in Ban Kho, empathizes with the children who are living with their grandparents and whose parents are away working in big cities.
“Sometimes I couldn’t answer those homework questions either. So how could their [illiterate] grandparents help?” said Tiam, adding that he was one of the few parents in the village holding a bachelor’s degree.
Ratchadapa Chotchuen, a science teacher at nearby Ban Na Tao School, also noticed that many of her students who are unable to keep up in class come from families where parental support is minimal. “Support from teachers and caregivers is essential to helping a child learn effectively.”
Many of her students are living with their grandparents, most of whom can barely write their name and are unable to help with homework. Prolonged school closure during the pandemic had made it even harder for them over the past two years. Without sufficient devices and teacher consultations, many were unable to keep up with their lessons. Children from Tak, Nakhon Ratchasima, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala faced the greatest difficulties in accessing equipment for online learning.
The statistics from MICS would seem to bear this out. The percentage of children living with neither their mother nor father has kept rising, from 18 per cent in 2005 to 21 per cent in 2012 and to 22 per cent in 2019. The latest survey found that one in five children live with neither parent, although alive, with the figure rising to 35 per cent in the Northeastern provinces.
This absence of parents has resulted in low parental involvement in children’s learning in Nakhon Phanom. Mother's involvement is a low 43 per cent, compared to the national average of 62 per cent, but still better than that of fathers at 21.8 per cent, compared to the national average of 33.9 per cent. Parental involvement, such as telling stories or playing with a child, is critical for supporting and caring for young children so that they can develop to their full potential.
In rural Mae Hong Son, lack of knowledge about nutrition is also a worry. Worachat Kongrattanasat, assistant village headman of Khun Sa Nai, said that while villagers are able to make ends meet, many lack knowledge about nutrition, so they often eat whatever is available. The isolated location of the village means a limited choice of proteins, and villagers’ beliefs prohibit them from eating pork and some types of fish, making the choices for protein-rich food even smaller.
“Many parents have never been taught how to find alternatives to protein,” said Worachat, adding that although children might learn about nutrition or consume milk at school, they often have no say in what is served to them at mealtime at home.
His concerns were reflected in the 2019 survey, which revealed that 26.5 per cent of children in Mae Hong Son are stunted – a condition that arises from inadequate nutrition over a long period of time and that can cause a child to be short for their age or harm their long-term brain development. This stunting rate in Mae Hong Son is double the national average of 13.3 per cent. The survey also found that stunting is more common among children from the poorest families.
“The provincial findings help identify children’s needs in certain regions,” said Nonglak Ngowiwatchai, Director of the Social Statistic Division of the NSO. “For example, some children are much shorter or have a lower weight than their peers in the rest of the country, while some might be learning slower than those in other regions. The data will be used by the relevant agencies to inform policies in the future.”
Approaching families for the survey has always been challenging, but the recent pandemic has made data collection for Thailand 2022 MICS even more difficult, Nonglak added. In addition to carrying tablets and tools to collect data, such a digital balance and height scale – enumerators must also protect themselves and others from COVID-19 by wearing masks and gloves and carrying disinfectant spray to clean any tools before and after use.
In 2022, UNICEF provided around 7.74 million THB, or around 35 per cent of the total cost of the new survey, to help the NSO collect quality data at the provincial level, specifically in the 10 poorest provinces. To support enumerators in their field work, the budget was also used for providing tablets as well as face masks, antigen test kits and hygiene supplies.
“This new survey, Thailand 2022 MICS, will provide an overview of the progress made for children’s well-being over the past years, along with the key challenges and disparities facing children in the most vulnerable and disadvantaged provinces and communities. The survey findings aim to help policymakers shape better policies, so that no child is left behind and can achieve their full potential,” said Chayanit.