Many teachers in Thailand's southernmost provinces have been killed in recent high- profile attacks by insurgents and the shootings are taking their toll on students.
Youngsters from the Muslim- dominated provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala fare the worst in nationwide tests, and the problem does not seem to be abating.
Standardised test scores for this year show schools from the "deep south" region continue to occupy the bottom of the provincial league tables, according to political scientist Srisompob Jitpiromsi from the Prince of Songkla University in the south.
Thai Education Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana highlighted as much when he spoke to The Straits Times on December 17 after visiting the southern provinces to speak to teachers rattled by the brazen gun attacks.
"When teachers lose morale, it affects their teaching," he said, promising to look seriously into their appeal for higher "hazard pay" and compensation for risking their lives to be educators in the restive region.
Currently, they get 2,500 baht (US$81) on top of their monthly salary and are escorted by soldiers to and from work.
The region was part of a Malay-Muslim sultanate until a century ago and its largely Malay-Muslim population bristles at what it perceives as intolerance of its language and customs by Thailand's Buddhist majority.
More than 5,000 people have been killed as separatist militants, helped in part by an easy access to guns, waged war on symbols of the state over the past eight years.
These include teachers. Insurgents have killed more than 150 of them since 2004 and this month distributed leaflets promising even more attacks when Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra visited the region.
Non-governmental organisation International Crisis Group argues that the government's military-focused response to the insurgency has only made it worse.
A prominent primary school principal in Yala, Prasit Mekusuwan, 59, told The Straits Times that he has lost about 20 friends - all teachers - from these killings.
"When a teacher dies, it kills the spirit of the students," said the educator, who has been based in the region for 40 years.
The teachers, he added, try to end classes early and avoid visiting students in their homes, cutting back on precious learning opportunities for them. "I'm scared too, but I have to continue staying here to help peace efforts."
On December 12, the Confederation of Teachers of Southern Border Provinces shut 1,300 government schools in the three provinces as well as parts of Songkhla province after insurgents executed two Thai Buddhist teachers in school compounds during lunch hour.
They reopened schools on December 17 after the government stepped up security measures.
But the better security and compensation for teachers may not be enough to shore up standards.
Students in the south are hampered because they speak primarily a Malay dialect at home and find it hard to cope in the Thai- based education system. Many attend private religious schools and subsequently do poorly in university entrance exams.
The ongoing violence further lowers education standards.
The Thai authorities seek local replacements for teachers who have been killed or requested a transfer on the assumption they are less likely to be attacked. The problem, says Dr Srisompob, is that these local replacements often lack the experience in teaching key subjects like mathematics and science.
According to The Nation newspaper, some desperate schools have resorted to using soldiers as stand-in teachers.
Professor Suwilai Premsrirat, a linguistics expert from Mahidol University, noted that a small- scale programme to teach some students in Malay, but using the Thai script, has managed to produce students who fare better than those in regular schools.
But the scheme has also been viewed with suspicion by some Malay Muslims who see the use of Thai script as another way to assimilate them.
Meanwhile, Phongthep said he is looking for ways to encourage southern students to be fluent in Arabic and Malay, as this would help open doors to them when the Asean Economic Community, due to be established by 2015, allows greater mobility of labour.
"We would like to make it their advantage," he said.
For now though, academics think the government urgently needs to find ways to prevent the ongoing violence from condemning young people in the region to a lifetime of underachievement.
Dr Srisompob said: "We need to invest more money in improving the curriculum, schools and classrooms, not just compensate the victims of violence."
Tan Hui Yee
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