SCORES of prestigious state schools are being forced to abolish the quota systems that allow children of VIPs or wealthy families to win places in return for cash donations or gifts.
In a landmark ruling, Thailand's Council of State has outlawed the practice as unconstitutional and discriminatory.
The decision is the result of a single-handed campaign by prosecutor Sumalee Limpa-ovart after her daughter was turned away by a Bangkok school.
After battling for months to get her hands on the entrance-exam results, she finally found out that the school had rejected her daughter and scores of others because wealthy and influential Thais had secured places for their children under a so-called quota system for VIPs. Of 120 primary places available, 40 were reserved.
The Kasetsart University Demonstration School - - Sumalee Limpa-ovart's choice - - is linked to a university and is sought-after for its modern teaching methods.
In the fallout that followed, even Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, known as "Mr Clean", admitted using his influence to win a place for a relative at a leading school. Others with children at Kasetsart reportedly handed over cars, computers and cash.
Sumalee petitioned the State Council to outlaw the quota system. The council backed her, stating that the 1997 constitution barred discrimination on grounds of race, nationality, place of birth, age and social or economic status.
The ruling opens the door to parents and students to challenge the widespread practice of paying "tea money" in return for places and good grades.
The current system means that intelligent but poor youngsters are excluded from good schools. Reform will take years, however, given the culture of corruption and nepotism within the country's schools.
Under-funded state schools and poorly-paid teachers both enjoy the cash hand-outs and there are so few reputable state schools that parents, desperate to get their youngsters a good education, are happy to grease the wheels.
Commenting on the ruling, Thailand's Nation newspaper said: "The Chuan government, which has tried to distance itself from Sumalee's lone campaign, can no longer stay aloof because it is obliged under the constitution to protect citizens' rights. Sumalee finally has proven to many sceptics that she is not simply a stubborn and sour loser trying to rock the boat."
Kasetsart University Demonstration School has so far proved unrepentant, saying that the quota system was used to ensure there was a representative range of children in its classrooms.
The school president, Professor Thira Sutabutra, also denied money was handed over for places. "It does not happen, has never happened and never will," he said.
The education ministry has promised to enforce the ruling. Sumalee's five-year-old daughter now attends a private school.