By Chularat Saengpassa
HUNDREDS OF THOUSAND children would potentially lose their chance for senior secondary or vocational education if the current charter draft sails through the public referendum.
The draft seeks to arrange the 12-year period of free education to start at kindergarten, instead of at Prathom 1 of primary education as at present. The move in effect threatens to heighten a risk of Mathayom 3 graduates losing their opportunity to further their studies.
“Once these graduates lose their chance to enrol in senior secondary education or a vocational programme, there is little chance they will go back to education again,” said Parit Chiwarak, a student at Triam Udom Suksa School and the secretary general of the Education for the Liberation of Siam student group.
He said children who missed kindergarten had the option of home schooling or attending nursery centres provided by local administrative bodies, after which they still had ample opportunity to enrol at primary schools.
A 2012 report by Dr Dilaka Lathapipat revealed that the gap between rich and poor children had narrowed when it came to enrolment at senior secondary schools. In 1986 the enrolment rate for children from the poorest quarter of families was less than 10 per cent, and for children from the richest quarter of families it was about 45 per cent.
By 2008, the enrolment rate of children from the poorest quarter of families was more than 50 per cent and the enrolment rate of children from the richest quarter of families was nearly 80 per cent. The improvement was largely due to the 1997 Constitution, which stipulated that the state must provide mandatory education to children free of charge.
In recent years, governments have treated Prathom 1 to Mathayom 6 and certificate-level vocational education as mandatory. However, the current charter drafters are pushing for change. Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) chairman Meechai Ruchuphan said the change was designed to develop children at the right age.
“The development of children during the age of two to five years is of crucial importance. If poor children don’t receive proper development at such an age, they will be at a disadvantage by the time they reach the senior secondary education level,” he said.
He said the charter draft did not leave out children from poor families when they needed to further their education in the senior secondary or vocational level.
“We will have a scholarship fund established to help children from cash-strapped families,” he said.
Meechai said the charter draft promised to lower the educational gap between economic classes because those who could afford the cost would have to pay for their children’s tuition at senior secondary and vocational schools while children from low-income families could get free education. But Parit argued that children should have a right to free education, and they should not be seen as welfare recipients when receiving schooling.
The young thinker said he had nothing against the move to provide free kindergarten classes, but he disagreed with the decision to end free senior secondary and vocational education.
“The educational expenses for young children are lower than that of senior secondary education or vocational education,” Parit said.
In the 2015 fiscal year, the government provided a state subsidy of Bt3,800 per senior secondary student each year. The subsidy soared to Bt5,868 for certificate-level vocational education. The subsidy needed to provide kindergarten education would likely be much lower.
Meechai has argued that the country’s budget is too limited to provide 15 years of free education and the CDC believes that
if there were just two choices for children, it would be better for them to choose free kindergarten classes.
“But if the country has more money, we may consider providing up to 15 years of free education,” he said.
In the 2015 fiscal year, the Education Ministry received a budget of Bt523 billion – which accounted for 20 per cent of the country’s total budget. The Education Ministry then allocated Bt315 billion for the salaries of personnel.
Athapol Anunthavorasakul, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said it was the duty of the government to provide quality education to its citizens. He said if it did not have a large enough budget, it must engage other sectors of the country to participate.
“You have to mobilise resources so as to maintain children’s rights to education,” he said. “Don’t treat education as a form of assistance that you extend to the less privileged.”
A report by former deputy education minister Dr Varakorn Samakoses showed that even with 12 years of free education just 54.8 per cent of children finished their schooling.
A 2010 report by the Education Council came up with similar findings – 12.9 million children were not being educated even given 12 years of free education.
Athapol said the government should not cite budget constraints as a means to weaken children’s educational opportunities.
“If it comes to state subsidies, the government has subsidised much of higher education,” Athapol said.
He said university students paid tuition fees but the fees were far less than the actual cost of the education.
Elsewhere in the Asean region, governments deliver free education according to their capacities. Brunei has free education up to the PhD level. Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and the Philippines provide free primary and secondary education.
Indonesia and Cambodia also provide free primary and junior secondary education. Vietnam and Myanmar offer free primary education.