Schools and companies should work together
Mechai calls for private sector to help boost educationTo Mechai Viravaidya, a man who has spent over three decades on community development, Thailand's schools are under-utilised when they should be exploited to strengthen communities and society as a whole.
"Schools could be multi-purpose venues for everybody, serving as lifetime learning centres. For the Chinese, they eat all parts of a chicken, from head to feet. Westerners eat only meat, breast and legs and throw away the rest," he said during an interview.
However, communities can't be left to work that out by themselves. Mechai is calling for financial assistance from private companies, pinning hopes on the government's income tax measures to allow a 200-per-cent deduction on education-oriented donations to spur participation.
"The government has been overwhelmed with tasks. The private sector can help fill in the void. I call this the privatisation of education for the poor. To improve education, we need the private sector's involvement," said the chairman of Mechai Viravaidya Foundation.
Mechai is now running an experimental project, through Mechai Pattana School in Buri Ram, to show how a school can help spread knowledge and empower communities at the same time.
He was pleased with Thailand's policy to allocate a larger portion of the annual budget to education, but academic scores are moving in the wrong direction. Upon graduation, many students lack the knowledge to support themselves financially if they are unable to find jobs.
By focusing on memorisation, the education policy is creating "followers of yesterday, not leaders of tomorrow". Aside from students, communities should also benefit as schools should be a hub "for economic and social advancement" under the School-BIRD concept (School-Based Integrated Rural Development).
At Mechai Pattana School, the concept is being experimented on.
Secondary-school students don't have to pay tuition fees but their parents are required to give 400 hours of public service and plant 400 trees in the year. In classrooms, students learn basic subjects as their peers at other schools. But on top of that, professional skills - agricultural lessons, sewing, industrial management, hotel management and many others - are included in the curriculum. With help from technical colleges in the province, students are encouraged to excel in academic scores and win technical college degrees at the same time.
Aside from free tuition fees, students are offered conditional "free lunches". For each lunch, they have to devote one hour on public services - including helping the underprivileged and elementary-school students in their communities.
To promote leadership, they are involved in teacher selection and evaluations, as well as the school's budgeting, while students in Grades 8 and 9 are involved in the selection of Grade-7 students.
At this school, students get involved on a 1-rai laboratory farm, which grows organic vegetables like mushrooms. In its first two years, the farm generated net profits of Bt600,000 and the proceeds are used to support the school's expenses.
"We all know that 70 per cent of students will become self-employed on graduation. Yet, most do not have the knowledge to support themselves," Mechai said.
Knowledge learned at this farm is shared with students' parents, who are entitled to a micro-credit scheme sponsored by donations to the foundation. Return from their farms is to be split in three parts - to parents, students and a fund to finance the students' university education.
When they are in Grade 10, they spend a year at Birds & Bees Resort in Pattaya. At this boarding school, where there's no homework, they work for the resort after class, to learn business lessons. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, they are taken to places in the province. On Saturdays, they attend sessions with guest lecturers. For leisure, they're trained in the ukulele and meditation.
The lessons learned at this school are being shared with others in the area. Both teachers and students are involved in training at other schools. The concept is also implemented by investors in Chaiyaphum, Khao Yai and Buri Ram.
Mechai is hopeful the School-BIRD concept will ensure 100 per cent sustainability for schools and communities and he aims to spread this concept to all 7,000 tambons in Thailand. In preparation for the Asean Economic Community (AEC), he plans to welcome two Thai-literate students each from neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Yet, in the initial stage, private companies' donations are vital. At present, Birds & Bees Resort is key in financing operations. Located on a 60-rai plot from his family, the resort and Cabbages & Condoms Restaurant on Hu-Kwang Bay give 50 per cent of after-expense income to the school. That help is necessary as expenses average at Bt120,000 for each of the 120 students, while teacher-training at other schools requires funding. The good news is a few companies, including Siam Winery Co, have recognised the schools' needs.
He looks forward to having schools look for companies where students can receive job training and where they can be potential employers. Scholarships for further education would then follow.
To Mechai, schools should be modelled on convenience stores like 7-Eleven, where all products are available. As such, they could prosper well beyond Starbucks, which mainly sells coffee.
"All we need is holistic education," he concluded.