Mixed hope for Education Reforms

Originally published at AsianCorrespondent.com on Friday 13th May 2016

As schools across Thailand prepare to reopen next week for a new academic year, the question of how the country’s proposed educational reforms might impact student learning is once again the focus of attention.

Weaknesses in Thailand’s education system are well documented, with the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking Thailand 50th of 65 nations,reports from the World Bank concluding that one-third of 15-year-old Thais are ‘functionally illiterate’, and year after year ofdisastrous O-NET results, in which averages rarely break 50 percent, all indicating that Thailand’s education system is in a state of emergency. These failings have been acknowledged by educators, academics, rival politicians and Thailand’s current leadership who made education a central point in their Reform Road Map,

A 2015 poll by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), which concluded that education was the top issue the public wanted to see reformed, also indicates that Thai parents are keenly aware of the country’s inadequate education system and its inability to meaningful prepare learners for the challenges of the 21st Century. This lack of faith in the current system has created intense pressure and competition for places at demonstration schools and huge demand for international schooling.

“If Thailand is able to mirror any of Finland’s success, it will be a significant achievement.”

In April last year, there were signs that genuine education reforms where underway with a purge of education officials and the dissolution of a number of education boards. However, in the months following these upheavals there were only superficial changes, such as a greater commitment to teaching the 12 Core Values of Thainess, and a well-intentioned, but poorly implemented, pilot scheme to reduce the number of hours of formal instruction for primary school students. In contrast, the most recently proposed education reforms, which include decentralization and changes to the provision of free education, seem destined to have a far greater impact on students.

Most observers agree that Thailand’s education system suffers from centralised top-down leadership and a fragmented education ministry consisting of quasi-independent commissions. Thelatest education reforms aim to break through these barriers, replace the Educational Service Areas (ESAs) and make the province the new focal point for leading education. This decentralisation will empower individual provinces to implement their own educational visions, tailored to the needs of learners in their region.

Decentralization and increased autonomy have been key factors in education reform in countries such as Finland and Canada, which have successfully improved their education systems. Following Finland’s arrival in the PISA Top 10, the country has been the subject of much attention and educators from the Scandinavian country have visited Bangkok on numerous occasions to meet with educators and academics. Perhaps this restructuring of the education system is a result of some of those meetings, and if Thailand is able to mirror any of Finland’s success, it will be a significant achievement.

“The integration of regional languages could be especially effective in the Deep South, where the lack of an inclusive education system adds to social unrest.”

Under this new decentralised structure, previously influential committees will be replaced by provincial education committees, chaired by ‘education governors’, and provinces will have the power to develop learning programmes to address the needs of the community, rather than relying on a one-size fits all approach which had previously been enforced.

One way in which this autonomy could positively impact student learning, is through an increased emphasis on regional languages, such as the Isaan language in the Northeast, and Thai Malay in the Deep South. Of the 67 million people in Thailand, only 20 million use Thai as their mother tongueand far too many children go through school without properly understanding core concepts as a result of these language barriers. If provinces adopt approaches such as the Mahidol Model, and allow more mother-tongue instruction during early years education, there is the potential to dramatically improve student achievement. The integration of regional languages could be especially effective in the Deep South, where the lack of an inclusive education system adds to social unrest, makes young men more open to radicalisation and feeds into the cycle of violence.

The second education reform which was outlined in the new charter, seems more controversial than the decentralisation of the education system, as it aims to eliminate free upper-secondary education. Currently, free education is available to all Thai students for twelve years, from Grade 1 (Prathom 1) to Grade 12 (Mathayom 6). The proposed reform will reduce the age from which these 12 years of free education are available from, starting in Kindergarten 1 rather than Grade 1.

While free education for kindergarten students is welcomed, coming at the expense of subsidised education for teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18, creates serious concerns that this will compromise access to education and educational equality, two initiatives which Thailand has international obligations to improve education under UNICEF’s Education For All (EFA) project and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Without government sponsored education, many teenagers will be unable to continue their studies and any hopes for them of moving onto higher education will be lost. The proposed upper-secondary education cut applies to students in government schools and vocational colleges, and could result in thousands of children being unable to acquire the necessary skills to gain meaningful employment.

In a country where nearly 300,000 students have dropped out of primary school education, the focus of reforms should be on increasing access to education, not only because of international commitments, but also to increase social stability and support economic development.

After years of educational reforms failing to navigate ministerial bureaucracy and colossal education budgets failing to improve students learning, education reforms which benefit all sectors of society, including Thailand’s most vulnerable children, must be an absolute priority. Increased autonomy for provincial education committees is an important step forward, but there is still a long way to go before students in Thailand begin receiving the education they deserve.

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