MANY BRAINS TO GAIN

Thailand 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Thailand has long suffered from an ineffective education system, with a large number of dropouts and graduates not equipped to deal with the demands of the 21st century. However, the government has been taking actions in a bid to get serious about much-needed education reform.

Thailand has long understood that in order for it to produce a work force and economy that can compete with its ASEAN neighbors, genuine reform efforts across the entire education system are an absolute necessity. A 2012 report released by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled Program for International Student Assessment placed Thailand 50th among 65 countries in terms of mathematics, reading, and science performance.

Furthermore, recent findings from the World Bank state that one-third of Thai students aged 15 are “functionally illiterate;" that there is a detrimental lack of qualified teachers, education materials, and infrastructure among small, village schools, and that the average 15-year-old Thai student is roughly a year and a half behind his or her Vietnamese counterpart. However, there are signs of willingness and enthusiasm among students, representing an ideal student base to apply reforms and achieve the desired results; the same OECD study ranked Thailand fourth out of 65 countries in the percentage of students who feel happy to be at school.

There is a wide consensus that education reforms implemented in 1999 have fallen short of transforming the sector and preparing the Thai youth for the intellectual demands of the 21st century. In 2015, Bangkok-based National Institute of Development Administration conducted a nation-wide poll that revealed that education reform ranks at the top of the Thai public's concerns.

In 2014, inklings of real education reform came when appointed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha removed several high-ranking civil servants from the Ministry of Education by an executive order. The same move saw the closure of three education boards, namely the Teacher's Council of Thailand, the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Education Personnel, and the Business Organization of the Office of the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Education Personnel, moving their responsibilities to the Education Minister.

Then, in March 2016, Chan-o-cha announced further reforms aimed at reversing the centralized education structure by creating an education committee for each province. He also announced the opening of 18 separate regional education offices that will set strategies to develop curriculum at a local level. This year will also see the “Pracharat School" project launch, which will provide the public and private sectors an opportunity to collaborate in developing basic education and will focus on teaching and learning as a means to develop the public conscience for social and community services.

Greater local autonomy will likely greatly benefit students in rural areas; as only half of Thais use Thai as their mother tongue, central ideas are sometimes lost in translation, critically affecting learning skills at an early age. Currently, the government provides free education from the primary level to the senior secondary level, equating to 12 years in total. A charter draft in an upcoming public referendum may shift the 12 free years one tier lower to include kindergarten and thus omitting senior secondary education.

Compulsory education in Thailand is broken down into three segments: six years of primary education, three years of lower secondary education, and three years of upper secondary education. National exams are administered every three years, during grades 3, 6, and 9. In grade 3, students are tested on mathematics and Thai. At the end of primary school, they are tested on mathematics, Thai, science, and English, while students in grade 9 are tested on all aforementioned topics in addition to social sciences. Nationwide, students start learning English from the beginning of primary school.

Secondary school is split in two, with students required to take an entrance exam after completing the lower portion. When students make it into upper secondary school, they can chose between general academic education or vocational education. Admission to higher education has been simplified in recent years, with the newly established Central University Admission System increasing importance on students' GPA and reducing the role examinations play in the admissions process.

The government has been both lauded and criticized for its substantial education budget, which, despite the portion of overall spending it claims, does not yield the expected results. According to Thai newspaper The Nation, the government's fiscal budget for 2016 sat at THB2.72 trillion (USD75 billion), representing a nearly 21% increase from the previous year and with a deficit of THB390 billion. The Education Ministry is set to receive some THB520 billion (USD15 billion) in 2016, approximately THB118 billion more than the second highest allowance allocated to the Interior Ministry. This equates to one of the highest education expenditures for any country; the government will spend 20% of its national budget, or 4% of its GDP, on education. Research from the National Children and Family Development Institute calculated per capita education spending to be THB35,000 for the fiscal year. Additionally, students and their families are expected to pay between THB25,000 and THB35,000 per student per year for added costs. The institute also revealed that Thai students spend considerably more time in class or studying, with annual totals rounding out between, 2,000 and 3,600 hours, compared to their US and Canadian peers, who spend 600-700 hours in class. Despite Thailand's record-breaking education expenditures and considerably longer studying hours, the country has not yet proved that high spending coupled with spending time in the classroom around the clock translates into a successful or fruitful education policy.

The perceived deficiency in the country's education system has had serious benefits for the international school sector; the industry is rapidly growing in Thailand. Data from the International Schools Consultancy show there are some 176 English-medium international schools in the country that host more than 65,000 pre-school through high school students and employ more than 7,300 local teachers. The majority of these schools are located in the capital, Bangkok, which is host to approximately 106 international schools. Wealthy Thais are now competing with expatriates for slots, skyrocketing the demand for these schools and resulting in longer and longer waiting lists for some. The government has no cap for local students who can attend international schools. Close to 50% of international schools in Thailand follow the National Curriculum of England, while 30% follow US-based curriculum, and 14% provide some type of International Baccalaureate program. The finalization of the ASEAN Economic Community is expected to increase Thailand's popularity as a hub for international education in the region, with government support expected to continue as schools become more and more accessible.