Providing kids a better education in our small schools
During a recent trip to Udon Thani, we visited several small schools on the outskirts of the city. In several ways, these small schools were typical of Thailand's 15,000 schools with less than 120 students.
In past decades, the schools had nearly three times as many students but, over time, their enrolment numbers have gradually fallen as a result of shrinking birth numbers; and with better roads that allowed some families to place their children in better schools located in Udon Thani city itself.
Several other schools were located in their close vicinity. In fact, a total of seven schools -- many of which had also shrunk into small schools -- were now located within a 3-kilometre radius.
The schools struggled to provide quality education for their students because they had a hard time attracting and retaining qualified teachers. During our visit, the principal of one of the schools explained that the school had no qualified English-language teacher and that many of their teachers were recent, and mostly inexperienced university graduates. The principal feared that many of these new teachers would only stay at the school for a short while before seeking to move to Udon Thani city or another urban area, and to teach at a city school.
This year, nearly one million children are attending small mostly rural schools in Thailand. Many of them are from Thailand's poorest families, and the quality of education they are receiving is not preparing them for modern work life.
In fact, the latest Program of International Assessment (PISA) 2015 results which measure science, mathematics and reading skills of 15-year-olds show that children in small schools are falling further behind their peers in larger urban schools. Students studying science in rural areas, for example, are behind students in urban areas by more than a year of schooling. In reading proficiency, the rural-urban gap, is even wider. More than half of these small rural school students will be functionally illiterate and struggling to understand the meaning of what they read. And, most likely, very few of them will be able to speak any English.
Thailand can do so much more to prepare its children for a competitive workforce. For Thailand's economy to regain its competitive edge, it will be important for more children to be equipped with stronger problem solving, analytical reasoning and English language skills. All Thai children, wherever they live and whether their families are poor or rich, deserve a fair chance in life -- an opportunity to receive a quality education as good as what is provided in Bangkok, or better.
Through the 20-year Strategic Education Plan, the Education Ministry aims to reduce disparities in academic strengths between schools in urban and rural areas. Last year, the Office of Basic Education (Obec) announced its intention to consolidate small and poorly resourced schools with nearby larger schools. Obec indicated that an estimated 10,971 small schools could benefit from this in the coming years.
Implementing Obec's school consolidation plan will be a huge undertaking -- affecting some 640,000 students and 56,000 teachers; 10,971 school principals would not be certain of holding the same positions after consolidation.
Despite the disruptions of closing some schools and building up others, consolidating Thailand's school system from approximately 30,000 to 15,800 schools could offer one of the best opportunities to heighten the learning opportunities for Thailand's most disadvantaged children.
Fortunately, Thailand can draw lessons both from its own experiences and from many countries in the world, including China, and several countries in Eastern Europe.
First, communities can lead the decision-making process on school consolidation, with the support, guidance, encouragement and incentives from the government. To take decisions, communities will depend on the clarification by the government of many practical questions, such as: What options will be available to provide safe (and affordable or free) transportation for children who commute to a new school? How will the facilities of the remaining, larger schools be expanded? How will teachers be trained to accommodate more students from different backgrounds? What additional support will be provided for children moving to another school? Can communities re-purpose former schools into early childhood learning centres?
Second, teachers and principals currently working in small schools have devoted their lives to serving and educating children. They may feel nervous about potential school consolidation.
The good news is that Thailand needs all of its current teachers -- just not in the place where they are currently working. In any country around the world, whether advanced or developing, rich or poor, decisions around education and schools are often the most difficult.
Education is often the most direct form of government support for families, and a school -- and the precious children within it -- is most often the very heart of a village or a small community.
Finding a solution for Thailand's children from rural areas -- providing them with the same high-quality education that children in urban areas receive now -- is a critical and needed long term commitment by this government, and by any government. We are hopeful the government and Obec will move forward carefully with this ambitious proposal that holds so much promise for Thailand's most valuable resource: its children.
Lars Sondergaard and Dilaka Lathapipat are education specialists with the World Bank in Thailand.