Education failings: Is anyone listening?
It is disheartening each time an international report is released which further condemns Thailand's education system. The utter lack of progress in significantly improving the country's schools demands urgent attention for social, economic, and humane reasons. The most recent international report to spotlight the dire failings in Thailand's education has come from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
The Unesco 2017/2018 Global Education Monitoring Report's criticism of the Thai education focused on familiar failings. Half the country's grade nine students have only a minimum level of proficiency in mathematics and reading, half the country's pupils are taught in a language that is not their mother tongue, and 3.9 million adults in Thailand are unable to read simple sentences.
These findings echo the annual shaming that the country's Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net) provides. The 2016/2017 O-Net standardised test results for Grade 12 students provide an even bleaker picture than the Unesco report, with the national average scores in mathematics at 24.9%, English at 27.8%, and science at 31.6%. Not only are these results diabolical, but they also confirm a downward spiral, with scores lower than those for the 2015/2016 academic year, when the national averages for mathematics and science were 26.6% and 33.4%.
An education system in which the majority of students fail to reach the national standards as prescribed by the Ministry of Education is a failing system in need of substantial reconstruction.
International education rankings further highlight the flaws in Thailand's schools. In the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which assess the ability of randomly selected 15-year-old students in mathematics, science, and literacy, Thailand ranked 55th of 70 countries. Those results place Thailand well below the international average and among the lowest scoring countries in Asia. The 2015 results also indicate a deterioration in standards since the 2012 assessments.
Thailand's poor performance in the Pisa rankings is all the more disheartening because education in the past years receives nearly a fifth of the government's 2.73 trillion-baht (US$82.5 billion) annual budget, which accounts for more than 4% of GDP. The country's education budget exceeds public education spending in most Southeast Asian countries as a proportion of GDP. Although not high internationally, the poor results suggest financial resources being squandered.
Thailand's education problems were detailed in the World Development Report 2018 on "Learning to Realise Education's Promise", which warned of a global education crisis. The World Bank report was released by the World Bank Group President, who stated, "This learning crisis is a moral and economic crisis," explaining, "When delivered well, education promises young people employment, better earnings, good health and a life without poverty… But, these benefits depend on learning, and schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it's a great injustice: The children whom societies fail the most are the ones who are most in need of a good education to succeed in life."
This wasted opportunity is a great injustice for millions of Thai learners, as education fails to empower them with the skills necessary to improve their circumstances. The failure of national education impacts disadvantaged students most heavily, creating a widening social gap between the poor and those who can afford private education and tutoring.
Given the shameful performance of average Thai students in national and international assessments, it is difficult to explain the complete lack of substantive education reform. Thailand's political instability, with 20 education ministers in 17 years, has impeded education policy-making. Education policies in Thailand have also been used as a political tool to reinforce ideologies or to procure votes, such as the 2011 campaign promise of free tablets for all students. Neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Vietnam, which have substantially improved their education systems, have benefited from years of political stability.
All of the international reports which have criticised education in Thailand have also offered valuable advice on how the country could overhaul these shortcomings. The World Bank report provides excellent advice, including better motivating teachers, making teacher training relevant to student needs, and investing in technology which is proven to increase learning.
Depoliticising and decentralising education so that individual regions and ethnic communities can adapt teaching and learning to meet the precise needs of their students, including mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB/MLE), especially in the Deep South, could also drastically improve education standards. Yala Rajabhat University just received a 2017 Wenhui Award commendation for mainstreaming MTB/MLE into its teacher education curriculum and in-service training.
Both Unesco and the World Bank have urged Thailand to implement greater accountability in education. As Unesco director-general Irina Bokova argues: "Accountability for these responsibilities defines the way teachers teach, students learn and governments act. It must be designed with care and with the principles ... of equity, inclusion and quality in mind."
The lack of accountability in Thailand's education system has created a culture of negligence and has allowed corruption, as in buying places for children, together with incompetence, to rob Thai students of the opportunities they rightfully deserve. School infrastructure development projects and procurements should be accompanied by transparency websites that post budgets, expenditures, and copies of invoices.
It is not just Unesco, the World Bank and the OECD which have shared solutions to Thailand's problems. International education conferences, such as EDUCA, have each year invited guest speakers with expertise in education reform. Just last month, Finnish educators hosted a special seminar at EDUCA 2017 which shared Finland's expertise in education reform. While international organisations are willing to provide Thailand with the support and advice necessary to reform, substantial changes, beginning with commissions into literacy and numeracy, are not occurring.
Although reforming education appears a mammoth task and would require a decade, the political will to act is a prerequisite. Systemic reform should be prioritised when the country returns to civilian rule. International help is available, education reform is possible, and schoolchildren must not be denied the standard of education they deserve. This responsibility must be accepted as the first step towards reform.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer, educator and education analyst for the Asian Correspondent website. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is a founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.