Fears are mounting that hundreds of thousands of Thai children could be missing school to toil illegally in fields and factories as recession spreads to the countryside. Abhisit Vejjajiva, Minister of the Office of the Prime Minister, said latest intelligence reports suggested that 300,000 children - half of them primary school age - had 'disappeared' from the system since the new school year started last month. 'The number of dropouts seem to be rising. It is worrying and we are doing our best to come up with a complete picture,' Mr Abhisit said. About seven billion baht (HK$1.3 billion) had been set aside to create emergency scholarships to offer parents who had been forced to pull their children from classes. Officials with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Bangkok said they feared dropout rates were soaring as parents could not afford to keep children in school while unemployment and prices rose. 'Children are being forced to work in greater numbers and who knows under what conditions. 'That really shouldn't be the case given all the development in Thailand . . . we are starting a survey soon to find out what is really going on,' said one official. Urgent education reform is poised to become a key part of Mr Abhisit's Democrats' drive for popularity amid widening criticism that the Government is ignoring the poor as it concentrates on financial reform. Pressure will mount over the next few months with the recession expected to widen and deepen. Mr Abhisit said the Government believed that both unemployment - currently running at more than two million - and inflation would peak in the next two quarters. The Government was acutely aware that low-quality education had long been seen as a key weakness in Thailand's development, Mr Abhisit said. 'The recession must not be allowed to hamper the situation further.' Plans were afoot to change regulations to improve classes, weed out corruption and, within five years, ensure that 12 years' free education would be available to all. Severe problems within Thailand's education management have become apparent following a scandal involving the supply of computers to schools without electricity. Former Education Minister Sukhavich Rangsitpol authorised six billion baht to be spent on computers and high-tech sound labs for more than 6,000 primary schools. Recent surveys showed more than 470 schools needed generators before they could turn the computers on - equipment that would cost a further 21 million baht. Others in rural and mountain areas were forced to leave the equipment in boxes as teachers had no idea how to use the machines. Investigations into the purchases are continuing.