Pongthep defends school closures

Closing small schools with fewer than 60 students will lead to improvements in educational quality, Education Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana said on Saturday.

Speaking on the "Yingluck Government Meets the People" weekly programme on NBT, Mr Pongthep insisted that educational personnel would not be affected by the plan.

The minister has been busy this week defending the planned school closures from critics who say local families and communities have not been consulted sufficiently.

Others say students could suffer if they have to travel too far to new schools. They could be too tired to learn and their safety on the roads could also be an issue.

Mr Pongthep on Wednesday told a meeting of education area directors that they would be required to carry out the ministry’s plan to close as many as 17,000 small schools and merge them with larger ones nearby.

The plan is scheduled to take effect starting with the 2014 fiscal year in October.

"It is just a merger not a closure of all small schools," the minister said on Saturday. "Students will still have schools for studying and teachers will still have jobs to do."

The school closure plan was a response to the fact that the average educational quality of small schools nationwide was lower than it should be, Mr Pongthep said.

In addition, when the government allocates budgets based on student headcounts, smaller schools receive insufficient money for their development, he said.

The minister said merging small schools with high-quality larger ones would help upgrade educational standards, noting that more than 3,000 schools had been merged over the past 20 years.

He also assured that the school merger plan must receive prior approval from local residents and agreement from school directors and students' parents.

Mr Pongthep stressed that not all small schools would be closed and merged. Those with high educational quality will be allowed to continue operating and the ministry would continue providing support to them.

Democrat Party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said his party opposed the small-school closure policy.

He said Mr Pongthep's comment that the policy was needed because budgets were insufficient was not correct because the Education Ministry received the largest budget when compared with other ministries.

Mr Chavanond called on Mr Pongthep to review the policy and come up a "one tambon, one school" policy instead.

Democrat Party list MP and former education minister Jurin Laksanavisit on Friday also urged Mr Pongthep to reconsider the policy.

Mr Jurin said Mr Pongthep was concentrating too much on management problems faced by small schools.

Instead, he said, the minister must consider other factors including the locations of schools and the communities they served.

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