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Sometimes numbers can be intriguing, particularly when they deal with challenges to fundamental social values such as equal opportunities for public school education. Umaporn Pattaravanich and others, in a recent journal article, cite several interesting statistics as part of their analysis of Thai secondary school attendance. The authors relate the changing statistics they cite to historic and contemporary issues in Thai society.

Pattaravanich et al. based their study on a sampling of the 1990 and 2000 population censuses of Thailand. Their goal was to find out what has been happening to rural/urban, male/female, and regional differences in Thai secondary school education. Have the figures been changing, and if so, how? The article focuses specifically on the percentages of students who moved up from 9th to 10th grade in Thailand over the ten year period.

One of the significant changes the authors report is that while about 60 percent of Thai students had dropped out of school by the 10th grade in 1990, that number dropped to 25 percent ten years later. The reason is that one of the major impediments to children advancing to higher levels of education in Thailand has been a lack of family economic resources. The increased prosperity in the country over the ten-year period has helped support families who want their children to continue with their schooling. Other factors helping the increase in school attendance have included a decrease in family size and the growth of urban areas, which form ever larger proportions of the total population.

Perhaps the most interesting change discussed in the article is the gender composition of students in secondary schools. The authors point out that, for the country as a whole, before 1990 school enrollments had consisted, predominantly, of boys. But by 1990, the male/female ratio in schools had become nearly equal. In fact, girls were slightly ahead of boys.

Surprisingly, during the ten year period from 1990 to 2000, the overall national percentage of boys entering 10th grade increased from 27.7 to 47.0, but the percent of girls increased from 29.6 to 70.1 percent. Those figures varied in different sections of the country, of course, but the nationwide increase in the numbers of girls going on to higher levels of schooling is startling.

The authors offer several explanations for the surging school attendance of girls. For one thing, women have been more affected than men by the declining availability of jobs in agriculture, so girls have been more tempted to stay in school and enter other job sectors. Also, the growth of the urban economy in Thailand, and particularly an increased focus on tourism and export manufacturing, has prompted more Thai girls to continue their educations. The reason is that these industries favor women because they are perceived as less likely to engage in union activities and better able to do repetitive work than men.

The article also points out that the traditional Thai view of the value of females—that boys represent a better economic investment than girls—appears to be changing as well. Among the poorer families of rural Thailand, in which education can only be afforded for a few of the children, parents recognize that women are more faithful in remitting funds back to their families when they get jobs in cities than men are. (A journal article by VanWey in 2004 discussed in more detail remittances by gender among the rural Thai.) Also, parents are increasingly expecting their daughters to take over family businesses and to care for them when they become elderly.

Pattaravanich et al. also found that urban students were more likely to go on to the tenth grade than rural students in both censuses, but the urban/rural difference had dropped dramatically by 2000. However, the results differed in the various regions of Thailand, and the authors provide interesting statistics about those differences by region.

Pattaravanich, Umaporn, et al. 2005. “Inequality and Educational Investment in Thai Children.” Rural Sociology 70(4): 561-583