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Everyone gets to learn

Limited means are no bar to a practical education at Phra Dabos School, initiated by HM the King

Giving young people a better chance in life than their circumstances might otherwise allow, Phra Dabos School, initiated by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, offers non-formal occupational training for underprivileged people denied formal schooling.

Throughout his reign the late King regarded a proper education as crucial to people’s wellbeing.

“There are many underprivileged people who can’t attend higher occupational-training schools due to poverty and lack of standard knowledge,” he said in 1975 to Police Major General Suchart Pueksakol, who went on to become Phra Dabos School’s first secretary.

“These people strive to learn more, especially to acquire occupational knowledge that will help them earn a living, support their families and contribute to the country,” His Majesty said.

The free-tuition, non-profit school for needy students, which offers a curriculum of vocational training courses, began modestly and expanded from there, in accordance with His Majesty’s wishes. The Phra Dabos Foundation under the King’s patronage and the Ananda Mahidol Foundation now oversee the school project.

Since 1975, thousands of students have completed the one-year, three-month programme and gone on to find jobs in various industries. “Many of them have become very successful in life,” says Orasuda Charoenrath, assistant secretary-general of the Phra Dabos Southern Border Province Project.

His Majesty once explained the school’s name. It derived from the story of the hermit monk Phra Dabos in the legend known as “Chandagorapa”, he said. The hermit was a learned person who nevertheless chose to live in deep in a jungle, where he shared his wisdom with disciples.

Chandagorapa in turn comes from the heroic King Chandragupta, who liberated India from the occupying forces of Alexander the Great.

The hermit would use various methods to test the earnestness of applicants to his jungle school. By travelling a great distance to seek out his knowledge, they demonstrated perseverance. Once satisfied with their keenness, Phra Dabos was ready to pass on his wisdom and skills wholeheartedly and never asked anything in return, other than the disciple’s best efforts and continued perseverance.

Phra Dabos’ acolytes would pay tribute by looking after his daily needs, such as cleaning the hermitage and bringing him fruit and herbs.

His Majesty’s notion was to bring the hermit out of the woods to a place he could do the most good. “Since the natural forests are nearly all exploited today,” he said, “Phra Dabos would nowadays have to live in concrete forests instead.”

Orasuda points out that non-formal education didn’t come to Thailand until 1979, so the school had to set an unprecedented course.

“The qualifications required of the students aren’t specified – age, religion, gender, birthplace or place of residence, nor even standard knowledge level. What’s important is the willingness to learn and persevere.

“The students are expected to acquire occupational knowledge – in fields like mechanics – so they can earn an income and lead decent lives,” she says. “But it’s also important to provide them with a moral education to bolster their integrity. Ideally they’ll learn to be patient, honest, persevering, self-sufficient, respectful, modest and thoughtful. All of these qualities are encouraged in their studies, inside the classroom and outside, since this is a boarding school.”

The teachers are volunteers, chosen because they display goodwill and genuinely wish to share their knowledge with the students without expecting any reward. “They have to be particularly loving and kindly, compassionate, sympathetic and joyful,” Orasuda says.

Phra Dabos School’s inaugural class comprised just six students, all immersed in radio repair and maintenance. The current curriculum covers eight subjects, the electives being electrical, electronics, radio and mechanical technician and agriculturalist, plus courses designed specifically for women.

With Thailand rapidly becoming an ageing society, the school has developed a course in the care of both the elderly and young children, Orasuda says. “Students who successfully complete the course receive their diplomas personally from Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.”

The Phra Dabos School in Bangkok is limited in scope, able to accept just 150 students each year, ages 18 to 35. In 1998, though, the King initiated the Phra Dabos Junior Project in Samut Prakhan, and Princess Sirindhorn followed up in 2010 with the Phra Dabos Southern Border Province Project.

Both of these schools together could only take in 250 students last year. That was 30 per cent of the 800 applicants, underlining the drastic need for more such training institutes. Phra Dabos School would be the obvious model for others to follow.

Orasuda stresses that the best model of all is the King.

“Considering His Majesty the King’s talents in many fields, there is one particular quality that every Thai should emulate, and not just the students of Phra Dabos School. And that is to have an ambition to learn and to persevere in achieving it, to genuinely learn about a particular subject.

“His Majesty kept on learning all through his life. His childhood creativity led to ideas that became practical in later life, such as his irrigation schemes.

“His Majesty was a role model. His thoughts can contribute to success in life for anyone who strives to learn and applies knowledge and morality.”

"Everyone gets to learn" published in The Nation, 11 November 2016

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