The more you learn, the more you earn: education and poverty alleviation in Thailand
A good education is often seen as a route out of poverty, but many disadvantaged children are unable to finish school. In Thailand, a project involving the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, is linking academic achievement to cash rewards, providing tangible benefits to marginalized families, and helping kids to stay in school.
Chaisri Taya, a teacher in the mountainous north-west province of Mae Hong Son, is a testament to the power of education. Born stateless, he completed a bachelor’s degree and obtained Thai citizenship. He has since become a role model in his community, sharing his experience with children and youth in a language they can relate to.
For children in the village of Ban Nai Soi village, four kilometres from the community learning centre where Mr. Chaisri teaches, barriers to education are almost insurmountable: to reach the centre, they need to take a gravel road, which is often difficult to navigate in the flood season and, at home, they have no internet access, and limited, off-grid, access to electricity.
In addition many of them are stateless, which hinders their potential. Although all children in the country are officially guaranteed education, regardless of their status, language barriers, discrimination, lack of access to resources, financial hardship and geography create barriers to full enrolment, with an unknown number of children out of school.
“Being stateless deprives these youth of learning opportunities. Because of their status, they were not confident in attending school.” says Mr. Chaisri. “They came to start studying with non-formal education and I saw them trying hard to learn.”
The power of the Learning Coin
But Learning Coin, a UN-supported initiative, is giving them renewed motivation to embark on the difficult journey to meet their teacher. The Ban Nai Soi students travel to Mr. Chaisri’s house and the learning centre by motorbike for lessons and to download content onto digital tablets provided by the project, which they can read offline at home, advancing their education that previously might have hit, literally and figuratively, a roadblock.
Starting in July 2020, Learning Coin has expanded to support nearly 500 disadvantaged children across Thailand, from ethnic minority and stateless communities in Mae Hong Son, to disadvantaged Thai children in the southern Yala region.
The students can access multiingual content on their tablets, including lessons and reading materials. By logging data from the tablets on a daily basis, the Learning Coin app can work out how many hours each student has spent accessing the material, how consistently they have worked, and the answers they submit. Based on this information, students are awarded between 800 and 1,200 baht ($25-38) each month, accounting for as much as 10 per cent of average family income in these communities.
Pandemic threatens permanent learning loss
“Whilst innovations such as Learning Coin are having a positive impact, they need to be matched at the policy level, with initiatives that address financial need and wellbeing and counter discrimination and lack of access to resources”, says Gita Sabharwal, the UN Resident Coordinator in Thailand (the highest-ranking representative of the UN development system at the country level). “There are still considerable challenges facing equitable education for ethnic and linguistic minority learners, girls and young women, and the most marginalized communities”.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to these challenges, affecting marginalized communities first and most severely, causing major disruptions to education systems, and threatening permanent learning loss. Girls and young women are disproportionately at risk of losing access to their education during the pandemic, as they tend to bear the burden of family duties.
“These children have the same potential and aspirations as any others”, says Ms. Sabharwal. “As they try hard to support their families, their dreams are varied and brimming with hope: to become a doctor, an athlete or an interpreter, to live full lives within and for their community. These are the dreams that build healthy and more equitable societies for all”.
The Learning Coin project aims to help disadvantaged children to make reading habits ingrained, for lifelong learning,
The first Learning Coin pilot was launched in 2018, with the support of the POSCO 1% Foundation and True Corporation, in partnership with the Foundation for Rural Youth, for about 150 learners in Bangkok and Pathumthani,
The initiative is supported by the Ministry of Education, Equitable Education Fund, teachers at 53 Thai public schools and community learning centres, and student volunteers from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education, together with Mercy Centre in Bangkok and the Foundation for the Better Life of Children,
The programme is scalable, to support low-income and marginalized learners not only in Thailand, but across the region,
UNESCO and UN Thailand’s role in developing the model is underpinned by deep partnerships with government, the private sector and civil society, furthering commitments to inclusive and equitable education through relatively modest investments, supporting the learners who are most at need.