In every challenge is a story of resilience: what an international school student sees when visiting small schools

In the pursuit of our mission to empower marginalised individuals and communities, for our work in youth and education, ActionAid International Foundation (Thailand) partnered with Thai Alternative Education Council Association (TAECA) and Thai Baan Association (TBA) for the ACCESS School Project. The initiative, which is supported by the European Union, was designed to improve the quality of education in rural Thai schools through increasing the role of civil society in improving the quality of their school and in working with local government agencies.

Since 2013, the Ministry of Education in Thailand has implemented a policy to address the issue of substandard quality of education. The policy mandated the closure of schools under 60 students or their merger with larger schools within a 6 kilometre radius. The objective was to consolidate resources and obtain additional funds to invest in equipping larger schools. However, what has been overlooked in this policy is the potential impact on more than 200,000 families. Many of them are unable to afford the travel expenses required to reach the new schools which limited the accessibility of education for their children.

I had the opportunity to visit Maha Sarakham in Northeastern Thailand, one of our designated project areas with ActionAid. The experience highlighted how the small schools have been withstanding after the policy was implemented. We visited three different primary schools and encountered a range of unique experiences. The first school we visited was a small institution with just 42 students, which met the minimum requirement for a school. What struck us about Ban Nong Bua Khu School was the strong community involvement, as community members generously volunteered their time to support the school in various ways, from taking the role of kindergarten teacher assistant or cook, to looking after the school’s rice field and vegetable gardens. We also had the pleasure of meeting a dedicated grandmother who took it upon herself to clean the school's toilets and sweep the pathways, contributing to a clean and tidy environment for the students.

However, we did observe a significant challenge across all the schools: the limited availability of teachers. This shortage was evident in the fact that a single teacher often had to handle multiple subjects and teach combined classes of students from different grade levels.

In every challenge the school faces is a story of resilience. We witnessed improvements in Ban Nong Bua Khu’s teaching methods through the introduction of a new curriculum based on active learning. Active learning is an interactive learning method that involves discussions and the application of students' own knowledge, allowing them to learn from each other in the process. Teachers had developed innovative programs that were better suited to the local environment, moving away from a strictly book-based approach. This shift encouraged greater student participation and engagement with their surroundings. The curriculum reforms also highlighted the incorporation of the philosophy of self-sufficient economy, which included the teaching of essential skills like cultivating vegetables and raising animals. By creating a supportive learning environment, students were able to enhance their critical thinking abilities and develop their own perspectives.

In addition to the positive advancements in teaching methods through active learning, the curriculum reforms were also influenced by the model school called Lamplaimat Pattana. With “Jitta-sueksa”, this school's curriculum placed great importance on emotional, social, and spiritual development, as well as fostering connections with the local community. By integrating these principles into the broader educational framework, students were provided with a holistic learning experience that went beyond academic knowledge.

What’s more, we had the opportunity to interview the director of the second district of Maha Sarakham from the Office of Primary Education, Surasit Thitsomboon. This discussion provided valuable insights into how the teachers effectively guide students on their path towards becoming responsible global citizens. Moreover, the director acknowledged the valuable impact that ActionAid and community involvement can have in creating a stronger and more sustainable impact.

We also met some of Ban Nong Bua Khu students. Initially, the children were hesitant towards us, as it was uncommon for them to receive visitors. To break that barrier, we introduced icebreaker games, which helped create a friendlier atmosphere. As the children gradually warmed up to us, they extended their kindness and hospitality, making us feel at home by giving us a tour of their vegetable garden and wild boar sty, inviting us to participate in volleyball games, and offering us the opportunity to taste different types of local food they helped prepare. It was particularly interesting to observe how, when students faced challenges in getting the ball across the net during games, the children displayed support and encouragement towards one another. This demonstrated the tangible impact of the curriculum's emphasis on honing emotional intelligence, as they had developed the ability to empathise and uplift their peers in times of pressure.

According to one of the teachers, following the new curriculum, notable improvements have been observed in the students' confidence when expressing their thoughts. This approach not only allows teachers to better understand their students but also empowers both male and female students to potentially emerge as leaders within their communities. This progressive gender-balanced approach represents a positive step forward, providing students with a more relevant and enriching educational experience.

To apply the insight gained from our visit to Maha Sarakham and address the challenges encountered by small schools, it is important to provide a platform for organisations supporting these schools to raise awareness and establish an active network. One practical approach is to create small clubs within schools and their network, engaging students in activities such as fundraising or assisting with school improvements. This will enable the younger generation, who hold the potential for long-lasting impact, to actively participate in addressing the issues faced by small schools. Through these endeavours, we can foster a sense of shared responsibility and empower students to contribute to positive and green changes in their communities' education systems. I personally would encourage more and more small schools to learn from the example of Ban Nong Bua Khu School who has adopted innovative tools and thrived in their own context. The same goes for the model of Lamplaimat Pattana School, for which I would personally give a platform in my school. The approach of Jitta-sueksa can help develop a new generation of people who know their worth, respect one another, able to foster positive relationships and resolve conflict peacefully, promoting overall well-being in their personal and professional lives as they grow up.

This article is written by Gaia Bruno, an international high school student in Bangkok. With a keen interest in education and gender equality, she took an internship at ActionAid Internation (Thailand) Foundation for one month.

“What’s important is that we’re happy while learning”: students reflect on experience at an innovative small school

The holistic education model of Small School Model promoted by ActionAid Thailand’s EU-funded ACCESS School Project integrates innovative, child-centered learning tools into the curriculum to improve quality of teaching amid limited funding and human resources, a fate generally met by Thailand’s small schools.

At Wat Khok Thong School, a small elementary school in Ratchaburi Province, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and Jitta-sueksa are applied to the classroom. Instead of splitting lessons into eight subjects, as is done traditionally in Thailand, the school keeps three core subjects English, Thai and math, while the rest like science, social studies, and vocations and technology are structured into broader, activity-based units with PBL, where different fields of knowledge are interconnected.

If PBL is the brain of the curriculum, Jitta-sueksa is the heart – or the mind (jitta). Every day before morning and afternoon lessons, with the class sitting down in a circle, the teacher would lead various mindfulness exercises that not only improve the students’ focus but foster EQ and SQ. These exercises include meditation, brain gym activities, storytelling and discussion. The children are often asked to write down their thoughts in a personal Jitta-sueksa journal after listening to a short story or topical news, and then, by choice, share with the group.

Tik and Waan with fellow classmates sitting in a circle of Jitta-sueksa.

In their final weeks as Wat Khok Thong students, two sixth-graders, Waan and Tik, reflected on their experience coming to “a school just like and unlike others” in the last 3 years. “The methods may be different, but the content is similar, and the students really understand the class. I think what’s important is that we’re happy while learning,” said Waan. “Rather than comparing our school to others or school sizes, we should focus on how it benefits the students, teachers and parents,” Tik added. “This school is worth coming to because we gain new knowledge, and we can apply it right away and in the future.”

But to talk about how their school’s method of teaching has impacted them, a certain kind of comparison needs to be drawn. Waan recalled her timid character before moving to Wat Khok Thong School in Grade 4, but once she was introduced to Jitta-sueksa – where there are no wrong answers and judgment in the discussion circle – she found herself more confident to share her thoughts and speak to an audience. “I used to be too shy to ask questions. I know now that if I don’t, I wouldn’t understand the lesson and become better.”

Tik added Jitta-sueksa taught her to think beyond herself, especially of her family. “Like how I treat my younger sibling or do house chores. If I do that well, I can help my parents a great deal. I know that they won’t be with me forever so it’s good to take something off their plate and become more responsible.”

A Grade 6 student presenting about digestive and excretory systems as part of PBL class.

Sharing about Problem-Based Learning, Tik said she didn’t use to like doing classwork or handing in homework. But with how diverse and hands-on PBL lessons are, she decided to be open-minded and found herself having fun with the activities. “I especially like when the topics are scientific and related to outer space. One question leads to another, and I can do the research by myself.”

“I personally hope I can study this way until I finish high school,” added Tik. “But if the next school I go to isn’t like this, I’ll adapt. I’ll see how what I’ve learned from Jitta-sueksa can help me.”

จดหมายข่าว โครงการอียูรับมือโควิด ฉบับที่ 3 / EU COVID-19 Response & Recovery Project Newsletter Issue 3

EU COVID-19 Response & Recovery Project Newsletter Issue 3

The COVID-19 pandemic was still ongoing at the end of 2021 with the new Omicron strain. Although the government had implemented measures to control the spread, such as designating risk areas and restricting opening times of places with high risk, the number of infected persons continued to increase and broadly impacted everyone in aspects of health, economy, and society, especially to those vulnerable groups.

However, partner organisations of the EU COVID-10 Response & Recovery Project had by then all received increased experience, skills, and expertise working under limitations in the past, and therefore responded to and revised plans under the project, such as adjusting the type of activity conducted or the number of participants involved to ensure in advance the safety of the target groups and staff, enabling more activities to be carried out than during the first half of 2021. The main activity still focused on building up knowledge on disaster response and food security, to support communities to have a plan to respond to disasters in future, to convey the information from the targeted groups out to the wider public, and to enhance the capacity of partner organisations in carrying out the activities in various aspects.

In the final two trimesters of the project (January-June 2022), each partner organisation compiled a summary and list of challenges from carrying out the activities in order to develop a set of policy recommendations regarding COVID-19 response in various dimensions, such as a forum for exchanging views on disaster response that will drive policy and revise disaster laws, a seminar on future city planning “Creating urban food spaces” that involves Bangkok Governor candidates, and the seminar “Migrant workers and access to relief during COVID-19 pandemic in Thailand” for state agencies and relevant organisations, in order to present the problems and offer solutions to the public, as well as to encourage all relevant parties to carry out responses and participate in solving the problems of the various target groups in a concrete and sustainable manner.

Click here to read the EU COVID-19 Response & Recovery Project Newsletter Issue 3

จดหมายข่าวโครงการอียูรับมือ โควิด ฉบับที่ 2 ประจำปี 2564

EU COVID-19 Response & Recovery Project Newsletter Issue 2

The outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2021 is currently still ongoing. Therefore, the government has leveled up the control measures, for example, determination of COVID-19 risk areas, the control of inter-provincial travel, the enforcement of curfews, etc. which results in challenges facing for the fieldwork. The EU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project and partnered organizations therefore have adjusted their activities to the occurring circumstance, such as changing forms of some activities from onsite to online operations, adjusting number of participants and activity patterns to be safe for the target groups and actors.

This adjustment has created learning, innovation, and cooperation among partner organizations so that activities can be carried out under various constraints. However, during the first year of the program, more than 45% of all activities had already been organized, such as distributing survival bags and hygiene products to schools and communities as well as other target groups, developing necessary professional skills during the outbreak of COVID-19, promoting knowledge on disaster response and food security, encouraging communities’ planning for future disasters, communicating with society to pass on information of the target- groups to public, as well as strengthening the capacity of associated organizations in various dimensions to carry out activities to be able to reach the target groups of more than 32,000 people in 40 provinces across the country.

Click here to read the EU COVID-19 Response & Recovery Project Newsletter Issue 2

Covid-19 response story Ratchanee Paeseng

"At least someone sees that we are here": Ratchanee Paeseng

“The government should come to see what support the community is seeking, if they are too much for the government to provide. What we really need is a fund that allows each of us to start a livelihood. We can do the rest with our hands and strength. If it comes as the 50-50 co-payment scheme, it doesn’t last, better to put money in career support.”

Ratchanee Paeseng, a villager of the Sa Ton Pho community in Phuket Province, is affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Previously, she was forcefully evicted from a land where she put up her house seven years prior.

Ratchanee moved to Phuket from Nakhon Si Thammarat Province seeking career opportunities. She was evicted from the land she settled along with many others, but later the group joined the Phuket Community Development Rights Network and participated in social activities. Supported by Chumchonthai Foundation, People's Movement for a Just Society (P-move) and ActionAid Thailand under the EU-funded Land is Life Project, the community’s the land right issues were raised to the state and eventually a new Sa Ton Pho community was created in an area next to the old place.

Before the pandemic, Ratchanee had worked in a spa in Phuket, earning about 800-900 Thai baht per day. With it, she could live with little difficulty. After the outbreak, the spa was shut down, and income dried up. She was struggling to buy food for survival. Investing in a new occupation was out of the question. And because Ratchanee was a non-registered person in Phuket, she could not receive any support from the provincial authority.

Fortunately, the community once again received emergency assistance from the Chumchonthai Foundation and ActionAid Thailand under the EU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project. On top of distributing relief packages, the project hosted a meeting where everyone could exchange and share issues, to find solutions together in response to the current and future disasters in the community.

Ratchanee reflected that past hardships taught that one had to fight to get through, expressing gratitude for the help and moral support from the Community Development Rights Network and the EU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project.

“The help from the project made me feel better and strong enough to fight on. At least someone sees that we are here and doesn’t leave us behind.”

"อย่างน้อยมีคนมองเห็นว่ามีเราอยู่": รัชนี แป๊ะเซ็ง ชุมชน สระต้นโพธิ์ จ.ภูเก็ต
รัชนี พร้อมชาวบ้านชุมชนสระต้นโพธิ์ / ภาพ: สุริยะ ผ่องพันธุ์งาม / แอ็คชั่นเอด ประเทศไทย

Food security: sustainable lessons for future crises

Sustainable lessons for future crises

Due to the surge of the pandemic, many vulnerable communities were struggling to survive. They could not afford enough food and necessary daily nutrients. Food security was one of the solutions that the EU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project, led by ActionAid Thailand in cooperation with BioThai Foundation, implemented. The aim was to reduce food expenses, improve nutrition in target groups, promote chemical-free vegetable cultivation, encourage growing for family consumption and spreading the practice in the community, and improve target groups’ overall physical and mental health.

In 2020, BioThai Foundation held workshops on basic food cultivation, from soil preparation to food production, for 30 community leaders from Pho Rieang, Thai Kriang, Thai Noi, Amnat Charoen, Chumphon, Wat Sawat, Suan Luang, Wathai Ayutthaya, and Wathai Nonthaburi.

ชุมชน มั่นคงทางอาหาร เสริมสร้างความยืดหยุ่นในยุคโควิด
ภาพ: มูลนิธิชีววิถี

Phonnarong Punthong, a leader of a northeastern network from Amnat Charoen Province, said that during the pandemic, his community was severely affected. Earnings dropped precipitously. Yet, food supply was not a problem, because his network had been working with and assisted by the BioThai Foundation on organic farming. As a result, his community was able to cope with food shortage during the pandemic.

Phonnarong recognised the importance of food security and decided to take part in the training because he hoped to enhance his food security skill and knowledge to sustainably develop his community.

“Joining this training is very useful. It helps create skills in agriculture from scratch. Instead of the uninformed traditional approach, there was the methodical instruction on growing vegetables and proper storage.”

พรณรง ปั้นทอง แกนนำเครือข่ายภาคอีสาน / ภาพ: สุริยะ ผ่องพันธุ์งาม / แอ็คชั่นเอด ประเทศไทย

Phonnarong added that the factor that changed his life after the training was the proper knowledge that was practical and highly beneficial to his family and his community. It led to his intention to pass on the knowledge from the training to other areas in his northeastern network in future.

Sukanya Kerdtim, from an Ayutthaya community network, said that before the spread of COVID-19, she had been a company employee in Bangkok. When the outbreak occurred, her working hours were reduced until she was finally dismissed. She did not have the income to support her family. Then there was the food shortage as it was very difficult to buy food during the crisis.

After joining a training about soil preparation and vegetable growing, Sukanya could better appreciate the importance of food security and would raise awareness on the issue, starting by growing greens at home and transferring this knowledge to friends in the community.

“I believe the vegetables that I grow will be shared with colleagues and friends. The sharing is not limited to vegetables, knowledge can be shared too.”

ขจร ฉูตรสูงเนิน จากชุมชนไทยเกรียง / ภาพ: สุริยะ ผ่องพันธุ์งาม / แอ็คชั่นเอด ประเทศไทย

Kajorn Chutsungnoen, from the Thai Kriang community network in Samut Prakan Province, was a repairman. During the pandemic, he struggled with food shortage. Sometimes his wife could not make her daily trip to the market. With his interest in food security and experience of growing vegetables at home, he was interested to join this training. He wanted to properly grow his own food and to set an example for his community.

“I have never known some of the information taught in the training, like in planting, I didn’t know that you have to clean it first. Coming to this training, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge, which is truly practical.”

After the training, Kajorn would be able to have his own vegetable garden, eat them every day, and share them with his neighbours. Importantly, he believed that this knowledge would help him survive this pandemic and any future crises to come.

จดหมายข่าว โครงการอียูรับมือโควิด ฉบับที่ 1

EU COVID-19 Response & Recovery Project Newsletter Issue 1

Since the emergence of COVID-19, Thailand's national economy and society have been affected on an unprecedented level. With the support of the European Union, the EU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project marches forward to consistently launch activities for the benefit of vulnerable groups and communities, such as provision of survival bags and training, with no undue delay in several areas of Thailand. All activities have met with positive feedback from the target groups and associated organisations taking part in shaping them with an objective to ensure a sustainable triumph over the pandemic.

Read the first issue of the EU COVID-19 Response & Recovery Project Newsletter

สอนคิด คำนึงถึงความแตกต่าง: คุยกับครูบัว–บุณฑริก ซื่อสัตย์ โรงเรียนบ้านฮากฮาน จ.น่าน โรงเรียนสอนคิด เครื่องมือสอนคิด

Critical thinking, individual differences: what Khru Bua's small school fosters

After a successful recruitment procedure, Ms. Bua Buntharik Suesat or, as her students call her, Khru Bua (khru is Thai for teacher) had her first teaching job at Ban Si Wa Doe School in Sop Moei District, Mae Hong Son Province, teaching Karen children from remote communities four years before making her transfer to Nan.

Today Khru Bua is teaching sixth graders at Ban Hak Han School, located in Nan’s Wiang Sa District. The school is under the Nan Primary Educational Service Area Office 1 and, with it being a small school of only 57 students and much fewer teachers, Khru Bua has to teach every subject required by the curriculum.

What made Khru Bua who she is today traces back to her childhood: coming from a low-income family, she had received student aid over the years. Although her family faced financial challenges, her education wasn’t overlooked. At fifteen, Khru Bua had to make a choice between pursuing vocational training or a university education. Choosing to follow her childhood dream of becoming a teacher, she got a student loan and applied for various scholarships. Eventually, the then-high school senior Khru Bua secured her place in the Bachelor of Education Program in Elementary Education at Chiang Mai University.

The reason she wanted to be a primary school teacher stems from her own experience with a short-tempered teacher who tended to hit students. The disdain for this particular teacher made Khru Bua feign mild sickness many times in order to miss the teacher’s class. But skipping lessons took its toll when her own grades worsened. For future students to like their teacher and not be driven away from school, Khru Bua wanted to start with herself and become a teacher. “Primary school is too important,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t feel like fending off the very foundation of their education.”

Photo: Patchgorn Pattawipas/ActionAid

Before getting to know Thinking Tools, a set of innovative pedagogical tools that Ban Hak Han School has incorporated in their curriculum, Khru Bua was skeptical. But she took time to reflect, as a teacher, what resources could be leveraged to help students develop critical thinking skills. “I came around,” she said. “It would be useless if a teacher has their students repeat things after them. That's rote learning and it does very little to help them solve problems in real life.”

“It would be useless if a teacher has their students repeat things after them,
That's rote learning and it does very little to help them solve problems in real life.”

On classroom management, Khru Bua notes, “positive disciplinary behaviour development is crucial. The teacher has to provide understanding, guidance and warmth. There should be no punishment and violence. The classroom should be a safe, stress-free space where students can express themselves and their views, where they can also laugh and play. That’s the ideal classroom. Its size may be small and we may not be equipped with the latest technology – only old fans and worn wooden desks – but if the teacher and students understand each other, that’s what makes a happy classroom.”

“Personally, I think physical tools and resources are necessary, but no more so than a good teaching method and how the teacher is towards the students. Even though Ban Hak Han School is a small school with no abundance of resources, we will overcome any material challenges.”

Khru Bua’s ideal school is not different from what society expects: a sufficient number of adequate classrooms, structural durability, a bright and well-stocked library, a playground and other physical environments that enhance learning. However, there’s no denying that small schools, particularly those in remote areas or in the mountains such as Ban Hak Han, don’t have everything of the ideal. They still face limitations running on funding the central government has allocated.

In many ways, a public school teacher is a civil servant working according to their line of duty. On her specific line of duty, Khru Bua reflects, “Thailand’s education system is always changing. When the person at the top changes, the policy changes. The system never stays still, and teachers need to keep pace with it and be ready for change. At the same time, we teachers have to be firm in the goal of student development. Like bamboos bending with the wind, we’re firm on the ground, but we’re also malleable.”

"The Thai education system needs to do better in recognising individual differences.
Forcing a fish that swims well to compete with other animals at
climbing trees is impossible and of no use. It’s the same with students.
As long as we use the same set of academic standards to appraise them,
there will only be 'smart' and 'slow heads'.

Ban Hak Han School became a Thinking School after the teachers had taken a learning visit to Chiang Rai Provincial Administrative Organisation School (the first school in Thailand to adopt the Thinking School methodology). The trip was supported by ActionAid Thailand. "We learned from hands-on experience and came back inspired to put the Thinking Tools to practice," she called. "We met with positive results and were able to create a positive learning environment. We’ve been doing this for about three years now.”

“Implementing the ten Thinking Tools in class has led to significant changes. Firstly, there’s change within the teachers – we’re more proactive, always learning. We make use of technology and don’t just recite books like before. I also personally see changes in the students. They’re more focused, responsive, expressive, and understanding of other people’s views. They’re able to communicate their thoughts more coherently, explain their reasons, make comparisons, summarise information, and make their own decisions.”

Cause and Effect, Compare and Contrast, and Mind Mapping are some of the Thinking Tools used at this school. Photo: Burassakorn Gitipotnopparat/ActionAid

For Khru Bua, the Thai education system needs to do better in recognising individual differences. “Forcing a fish that swims well to compete with other animals at climbing trees is impossible and of no use. It’s the same with students. As long as we use the same set of academic standards to appraise them, there will only be 'smart' and 'slow heads'. The current system takes teachers away from students. It takes away the students’ humanity and encourages them to be more like a machine."

Khru Bua is a notable example of a teacher who has adopted Thinking Tools. She has proven that an effective classroom doesn’t necessarily need to be equipped with abundant resources. This is because learning can take place in any circumstance, even in a Thai highlands community shared by various ethnic groups like Ban Hak Han. Today, Khru Bua remains committed to guiding and developing youth through innovative tools that not only teach them how to think, but how to exercise empathy – how to be human. She is an important player in the movement that’s bringing about change in the area and making an impact on many other schools in Nan and beyond.