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Govt backs down on schools

Phongthep sets up panel after meeting with critics; denies unconditional closure

Bowing to public uproar and opposition from civic groups and critics of a policy to close small-sized government schools, the Education Ministry has agreed to set up a joint committee, which would include representatives from civic organisations, to look into the issue.

After a meeting with representatives of the Community School (Small School) Network Club of Thailand, the Thai Alternative Education Council Association and parents practising home-schooling, Education Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana announced the decision to set up a joint committee yesterday, He suggested that opponents of the plan should play a role in solving problems at quality small schools.

Lately, there has been an uproar over the ministry's controversial policy to close down small schools - those having fewer than 60 students - or merge them with larger ones. Opponents of the policy even say it is unconstitutional and are mobilising efforts to protest against it.

These representatives showed up at the Education Ministry yesterday with 18,081 signatures of people who were against the ministry's policy to close down small schools.

"If any community wishes to keep the small school in its area, it should play a role in arranging educational services. We definitely will not close down quality small schools," Phongthep said.

He added that his ministry also would not close down small schools against the wish of the local communities.

He said the representatives from civic organisations had produced many examples of quality small schools during the meeting.

"It's possible through contributions from local communities," Phongthep said, "During the meeting, we agreed that we should set up a joint committee to look into the problems at small schools and how to solve them."

He said the committee's members would come from both the Office of Basic Education Ministry and civic organisations.

On May 24, all educational-service-area offices will submit a report on the number of small schools in their zones to the ministry.

"But that doesn't mean, we will close all small schools. We will consult local communities first," the education minister said.

In Yala, a senior education official yesterday disclosed that parents had objected to the plan to close down small schools in their neighbourhoods.

"In the face of ongoing unrest, the parents are worried about the safety of their children if they have to travel farther to get to schools," Adul Promsaeng said.

Four schools in Yala's Educational Area 1 have fewer than 60 students each, he said.

Parents in Yala's Educational Area 2 have also expressed opposition to the policy.

In Prachin Buri, students at the Adul Satsanakij School are praying that their schools will not be closed down.

This school has just 24 students. In Mathayom 1 class, only one child is present.

"I don't want to study far away from home," this student said.

Meanwhile, National Human Rights Commissioner Visa Benjamano emphasised that the Education Ministry should respect children's rights in response to the uproar about the policy to close down small schools.

"Section 49 of the Constitution states that all persons shall have equal access to 12 years of free education," she pointed out.

Visa also called on relevant authorities to pay attention to a number of children who had to drop out of schools and did not have access to fundamental education.

She chairs the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) subcommittee that is investigating alleged violations of children's rights. "We have received, to date, two complaints about the government policy to close down small schools," Visa said.


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