Despite the buzzing tourist vibe at the Mae Taeng Elephant Camp in a scenic valley an hour north of Chiang Mai, 13-year-old Hmong boy Somchai Sirijanurak keeps his cool and his hands steady while carving a watermelon into beautiful patterns.
Women are more commonly associated with fruit carving, but Somchai is quite good at it and hopes that his skill will lay the foundation for his planned career as a woodcarving master.
In this northern city, where elements of the tourist industry can be seen in every corner, the provincial statistics office reported that last year there were 1.3 million people not listed in the household registration system or migrant workers. Some 24,000 of them were the children of foreign workers.
As a result, the province needed to adjust its education system to manage the area’s context.
Ban Pang Mai Daeng School teacher Saijit Inlockfong, who brought students to show off handicrafts to the media, said the children normally made items outside of class time.
Saijit said their products were distributed via the school’s co-op to Chiang Mai tourist attractions, like the elephant camp, and the profits shared with the students.
“The policy emphasises letting students have jobs because Chiang Mai has many attractions, so the kids can earn extra income.”
Students who could not afford to pursue a higher education benefited from these skills, she said.
Elephant camp owner Boontha Chailert is one local business operator who gives students an opportunity to practice vocational skills – be it Thai massage, cooking Thai sweets or making handicrafts.
“I don’t want our children to go job-hunting in other cities or countries after they graduate,” he said.
Chiang Mai Primary Educational Service Area Office 2 director Rattanaphum Nosu said local bodies, schools and businesses participate in education management to cater for the community. But he said teachers and students were still pressured by unrealistic assessments, hence teachers were reluctant to fully integrate vocational activities into schooling.
“People agree with the need for a new assessment that won’t just measure students’ knowledge in exams but also the life or vocational skills they obtain,” he said.
“So society has to adjust its way of thinking and its values about degrees. Many migrant workers will go back to their home countries when the Asean Economic Community comes into effect and Thailand will suffer a labour shortage in some fields if we are not well prepared for such a scenario.”
The Chiang Mai Employment Office reported that between October 2013 and March 2014 there were almost 18,000 job vacancies but only 1,777 people were employed – suggesting that the education system is not producing enough employees to meet demand.
President of the Chiang Mai Provincial Administrative Organisation Boonlert Buranupakorn said his office would set up an alliance for education reform that allows local residents to work together so the region becomes an “education reform province”.
He said the province’s more than 346,000 students would be central to the process and Chiang Mai would be categorised as an education reform zone with decentralised management and the province taking charge.
There would be “Lanna-style” education in which students would be taught to appreciate what it means to be a native of Chiang Mai and Thailand, with the promotion of knowledge, skills, language proficiency and the ability to quickly adapt to world changes.
Boonlert said eliminating social inequality via quality education that caters to each child’s needs would also be a key element, as well as job-oriented education that steers students towards professions they are suited to.