Thailand’s Temple Schools

(Steve’s following article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on March 14 as “Buddhist Schools Play Vital Role in Rural Thailand”)

Until just over a century ago the only education available in the kingdom of Siam was a religious one found only in its Buddhist temples. Destitute families in what is now Thailand sent their young sons to temples to become novice monks, where they would get free food and accommodation, and learn to read and write. It was also believed they would earn karmic merit for a better “next life”.
The road to a modern education system was embarked upon by King Chulalongkorn after a visit to Europe in 1897. Before his reign the only disciplines taught in Siam’s temples were the Dharma and Pali – the teachings and language of the Buddha. A western-style education was the preserve of noble families and their teachers were foreign missionaries. Girls were forbidden from being schooled.

Supported by foreign educators in Bangkok, King Chulalongkorn set to work. He ordered the building of Siam’s first conventional schools, complete with books, chairs, tables and chalk. Besides the mainstay Buddhist teachings, commoners’ children could now learn today’s staple subjects of maths and science.

Queen Saovabha believed that females also had the right to learn and founded Rajini School (Queen’s School for Girls). In 1921 education became compulsory.

“After the establishment of the modern education system, temple abbots continued to be pivotal to its development, offering temple land for school buildings on a massive scale,” said Yanyong Ongpakul, a retired school director, who is now deputy mayor of Suphanburi town, about 120km northwest of Bangkok.

“Even today most of the schools in Thailand are located on temple land.”

No longer learning centres for only novice monks, temples became the educational focal point for commoners and gradually, over the next 100 years, school uniforms replaced monks’ robes. And professional teachers took the place of monks at the head of the class.

“Whereas monks were once the only teachers for children, although they still teach Buddhist scripture the vast majority of temple schoolteachers are now trained professionals,” Mr Yanyong said.

Today the only places in Thailand where novice monks study in class are monastic universities, the most renowned of which is Bangkok’s Wat Bovornives (Temple of Kings) – the residence of Thai Buddhism’s supreme patriarch.

Once the home to destitute urchins, Wat Bovornives’ primary and secondary schools, along with other royal temple schools in the Thai capital, are now prestigious educational institutions where, because of a fierce competition for places, large “donations” are often required.

But, Mr Yanyong said, temple schools retained an important role in the education of many children outside Bangkok – especially in rural areas where 70 per cent of the country’s 61.5 million people live.

Since the majority of Thailand’s better-funded government schools are situated in the main provincial towns and districts, village temple schools are still the only place where many children can learn.

The larger provincial temple schools, also close to the major towns and districts, have relatively big budgets paid for by the provincial authorities. The village schools largely scrape by on a shoestring budget. Yet both follow syllabuses set by the Ministry of Education.

A large percentage of rural students drop out after Grade Six – at only 12 years of age – even though the government mandates nine years of free education. Transport and uniforms are some of the added costs that make school unaffordable to poorer families.

Since most rural temple schools are only primaries, the parents of Grade Six graduates bear the burden of funding a secondary education at a school often tens of kilometres away, some days inaccessible during the rainy season. As a result many rural Thais remain under-educated and, therefore, economically deprived. Successive governments have largely ignored education for the rural poor by failing to build and manage secondary schools.

Even if they do manage to save away enough money to send their children to the towns to learn, parents are expected to pay for a range of extras. Despite the fact that education itself is free up to the age of 18, extras parents are asked to pay for include private English classes conducted by foreign teachers, computer classes, and many day camps and field trips.

A common complaint from parents is that money they pay for extras is often used by the schools to “polish their image” – which may include gold-painted signs and air-conditioned teachers’ rooms. Very little goes towards improving educational material, they say, and pupils still have to make do with a rustic blackboard and an old cassette player. The situation evokes the Thai saying phak chee loy nah, meaning “sprinkle parsley over it to make it look better”.

The rural temple schools can only dream of relish on their food.

Wat Kui Dee Thong School is a small primary temple school amid the paddy fields of Suphanburi province. Many children sit on the floor because there are not enough chairs. And the school has only 56 pupils – if they all turn up. Regular absence is common as the children sometimes have to help their parents in the fields.

The classrooms are bare with little more than a blackboard and a few ageing posters stuck on the walls. Unlike the better-off pupils in the main provincial schools, many of these children are poorly dressed in holey socks, blouses or shirts and shorts, which look like they have been handed down. Some children do not even have socks.

Udol Plaichan, the principal, said: “Because of a lack of teachers for many subjects, mixed grades learn together in the same class.”
For example, Grades One, Two and Three are split up in the classroom and the teacher goes around teaching each grade one by one.
“When there is not a teacher available for a particular subject, say science, the children are forced to travel long distances to another temple school to study for that lesson,” Mr Udol said.

If, however, the school has no money to pay for petrol, the children are forced to stay there twiddling their thumbs.

“Since the budget allocated to the school is so small, the only way to buy much-needed teaching materials and develop the school in any decent way is to rely on donations from the temple.”
He said the school relied on wealthy townspeople, who visit the temple to make merit in the form of donations. Leftovers after upkeep of the temple and monks’ necessities are taken care of are given to the school.

Parents of the poorest children do not even have enough money to pay for the 5 baht (HK$1.20) bus ride and 10 baht lunch, let alone afford a new pair of socks.

Fortunately many of the poorest children get much-needed sponsorship from wealthier locals. Others, however, have to make do with the remains of the monks’ morning alms round for food, donated second-hand uniforms and even a lift to school in the back of the principal’s pickup.

Ratchapon Phanitjaroen, principal of nearby Wat Ou-ya temple school, which has 123 pupils and is slightly better off than Wat Kui Dee Thong, said: “Even though they are often very underdeveloped, the temple school is a second home to most underprivileged children.”

Both Mr Udol and Mr Ratchapon said they often paid for some of the children’s expenses out of their own pockets.

Despite not having socks or fancy notebooks, one thing the pupils do not lack is enthusiasm. They work happily and diligently, and the sight of a Caucasian face is warmly welcomed.

The standard of English in these schools, however, is generally poor. Asking the English-cum-maths-cum-PE teacher “How are you?”, he replied: “I am 49 years old.”

German expatriate Hans Ellermann, 60, offers his services to the school as an English teacher. The enthusiasm of the pupils at the opportunity to practise speaking the language with a European teacher is a joy to see. Asked if he worked voluntarily or received a wage, Mr Ellermann said with a smile: “The director just buys me a couple of beers in the town sometimes.”

Despite their poor backgrounds, not all Thai children studying in underfunded rural temple schools are resigned to a life of rice farming. They, too, have ambitions.
Sam, a Grade-Four boy aged 10, eagerly responded when asked about his future hopes by saying he wanted to be an engineer. Tukata, an 11-year-old Grade-Five girl, hoped to become a flight attendant.

The pupils at these rural schools may not be picked up at the gates of a prestigious school for a ride home in their father’s luxury sedan, like some of their big-city counterparts in Bangkok, but the warm smiles on their faces and their enthusiasm for learning, at least, deserve top marks.

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4 responses to “Thailand’s Temple Schools

  1. Congratulations – you can call yourself a proper journalist now, none of this Nation rubbish – hopefully it will be the first of many.

  2. Lovely piece Steve.

    The words echoing in my ears at the moment from some novices in Chiang Mai are: “When Mr Bill come back and teach us English?” I’d better do something about make good on my promise to do that for a week or two.

  3. Thanks for giving us an insight into “poor” schools in Thailand. It is so different to the private school I have taught at for the last fifteen years. Quite often the size of one class at my school is bigger than the entire population of a typical temple school.

  4. Thanks for sharing this insight.