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.