Thai education system fails to pass the test, says Unesco report
Paper encourages schools to prepare students for a fast-changing world
Unesco's latest report on Thailand's education system is a disappointment for the government and Thai people as a whole. However, the report can be seen as a genuine wake-up call for the government in terms of what it can do to improve our education system.
As Unesco clearly pointed out in its 2017-18 Global Education Monitoring Report, Thai governments, past and present, have failed to provide access to universal basic education, a basic obligation of any decent government.
The report also encourages Thailand to focus on certain areas to prepare students for a fast-changing world. Thailand can do so by conducting a thorough review of its curriculum; developing a holistic strategy to prepare teachers and school leaders to deliver education reform; and creating a comprehensive information and communications technology strategy to equip all of Thailand's students for the 21st century, with an emphasis on improving teachers' skills.
Having once promised 15 years of free education to Thai children, and setting an ambitious goal for Thailand to escape the middle-income trap and become a developed country by 2036, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha can kick-start a fresh education policy by addressing the growing inequality in Thailand's education system if he returns for a second term.
A new report from the OECD, "Education at a Glance 2017", examined the performance of education systems around the world.
In terms of education expenditure as a percentage of the GDP of 19 member countries and a number of partner countries, Britain spends more on education than any other OECD country, followed closely by Denmark and New Zealand. Britain spends 6.6%, followed by Denmark on 6.5% and New Zealand on 6.4%.
In terms of education spending, Thailand spent 4% of GDP, which is 20% of the government budget but ranks at the bottom for quality of education, according to Supachai Panitchpakdi, a former World Trade Organisation director-general.
Speaking at a seminar entitled "A University for the 21st Century" last year, Mr Supachai described Thailand's education system as a failure, unable to manage large budgets and compete internationally. Policymakers must examine the reasons why Thailand's education system is in trouble, especially the question of why students cannot compete at international level.
On the most recent Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) results in 2015, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Chinese, Taipei and Japan continue to dominate international rankings for maths and science.
Singapore came on top of global comparisons of maths and science ability. Singapore's education contributes to its intensity and strictness. Singapore also invested heavily in a quality teaching force to lift the status of teaching and to attract the best graduates, as noted by OECD education director Andreas Schleicher.
Meanwhile, Thailand came 54th out of a total of 70 assessed countries, with scores dropping in all subjects since the 2012 assessment.
Classified by subject, Thailand ranked 54th for maths, 57th for reading, and 54th for sciences. Pisa have also found that one-third of Thailand's 15-year-olds were functionally illiterate.
If the Education Ministry is determined to improve the collective performance of students of all schools following Thailand's poor Pisa test results, simply spending more money to try to improve academic achievement and to bring up better Pisa test results is not enough.
The government must also focus on narrowing the gap between students in elite schools and those in underprivileged schools. One major aspect of Thailand's education failure is that students in Bangkok and large cities receive better schooling than students in rural schools, which are far below the national average.
Moreover, English fluency holds the key for Thai students to be able to compete internationally in an increasingly globalised world.
Thailand can learn from Finland's education system, which was ranked second on the World Economic Forum's latest list. Three key components that contribute to Finland's educational success are: 1) a near absence of poverty; 2) students' fluency with languages. Most students know three languages: Finnish, Swedish and English; 3) the degree of respect and trust teachers are given in Finland.
One of the reasons for that reverence for teachers is how hard it is to become a teacher in Finland. Teachers are selected from the top 10% of the country's graduates. They are required to earn a master's degree in education. Meanwhile, Thailand can make use of the excellent qualities of Finland's education model by focusing on providing training to upskill teachers.
These facts underline the challenges Thailand is facing in meeting Unesco's goal of achieving "inclusive and equitable quality education for all".