Reforms needed to fix Thai schools
Despite all the lofty goals and tremendous effort made to improve the state of Thai education recently, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's military government has failed to bring about essential reforms.
When the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) seized power in May 2014, its supposed mandate was to eliminate corruption, end political conflict, and reform Thailand's failing social institutions.
Improving the education system was prioritised as a key element in the government's ambitions to propel Thailand out of the middle income trap and toward "Thailand 4.0".
Identifying the failures of the education system is by now old hat. According to a 2015 National Institute of Development Administration poll, the public is very aware of the problem, identifying the education system as most urgently needing reform.
National (O-Net) and international assessments (Pisa) and reports have further emphasised the education crisis, with educational inequality by province, region and ethnicity pervasive.
Thailand's academic inadequacies have been revealed in numerous international reports, including Unesco's 2018 Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR), which disclosed that half of Grade 9 students have a minimal level of proficiency in mathematics and reading.
A World Bank 2018 development report also detailed the nation's education woes, warning that an education crisis is both a moral and economic crisis.
During the junta's first year, there seemed a genuine effort to fix the system. Education was prioritised in the Reform Road Map, and promises were made to accelerate related reforms.
Furthermore, Gen Prayut used the controversial law-by-diktat, Section 44, to cut red tape, with a purge of education officials and the dissolution of three education boards, removing senior civil servants at the Ministry of Education and opening investigations into corruption and the misuse of funds.
In March 2015, the prime minister chaired a meeting of the Education Superboard, which announced that a 2020 Educational Vision master plan would be developed, based on successful education initiatives from Singapore, South Korea and Finland.
Two years later, the Independent Committee for Education Reform (Icer) was established to overhaul Thailand's educational sector. One Icer objective is to increase accountability so departments and agencies will face consequences for their failures.
This is important, but after nearly five years changes should have been implemented, not just discussed.
One reason the education system has been unable to make any significant progress over the past two decades is because of political infighting, with politicians putting their own agendas ahead of the needs of the country's children.
Over the past 20 years, there have been 21 education ministers. The junta promised to address this, yet three different education ministers have served since it took power.
Moreover, the military's introduction of the 12 Core Values of Thai People at schools was not conducted to mould positive national values, but has been fused with ultra-nationalistic top-down centralisation, mindless discipline, and slogans over learning, as well as the obscenity of making primary-school children wear military uniforms.
In his weekly address to the nation on Jan 4, Gen Prayut was still pathetically lamenting the country's educational failings and talking of needed reforms. Those sentiments may have been initially welcomed, but no significant steps to improve teaching, learning or assessment indicates that education reform was secondary to maintaining control.
Gen Prayut's supporters may argue that the Education Ministry recently launched a 20-year Strategic Education Plan, with the short-term goals of raising the average O-Net scores of students in every subject to above 50%, increasing the education of working-age adults, and providing high-speed internet, and the long-term goals of fixing inequality in the education system, improving the levels of student achievement in rural areas, guaranteeing equity in educational resource allocation, and raising research and development spending in universities.
While admirable, these goals are self-evident and hardly reflect well on five years' work.
Furthermore, the plan shows little understanding of the problems or people of those rural areas that make up the majority of the country. It also fails to provide the initiatives, policies or reforms that are needed to achieve these goals.
The core curriculum has not been tailored to ethnic minority children, and Thailand's draft national language policy, which would have made multilingual education easier, was not implemented.
Those difficult decisions will be left for the incoming government. Whichever party comes to power after this year's elections, it must not shirk the responsibility of implementing difficult but crucial education reforms.
If the next government is genuinely intent on improving Thailand's school system and giving Thai children the skills and abilities they need to succeed in the 21st century, it will need to introduce substantive reforms which involve surrendering, not maintaining, power.
These should include decentralisation and increased autonomy, giving individual provinces and municipalities the ability, as well as the funding, to adapt and develop teaching and learning to meet the needs of the children in their region.
Much of the academic success from flagship education systems in countries like Finland and Canada has come about from an increase in autonomy. Greater accountability by means of websites promoting transparency is also necessary to ensure that decentralisation and increased autonomy succeeds.
Thailand's curriculum is outdated and overloaded. A complete overhaul in terms of teaching literacy and numeracy, achieved in other countries by hiring experts from more successful countries, is required to ensure children master the basics before focusing on the development of higher thinking skills.
The current O-Nets are still poorly written, insular, multiple-choice assessments which focus only on testing lower-order thinking skills.
The NCPO has failed to provide education reforms that would benefit children. Even early childhood education centres in rural areas lack decently made toys and playgrounds, with their personnel under-trained and overly reliant on televisions instead of promoting social interaction.
Basic reforms are essential for socio-economic and moral reasons. The next government must reject an echo-chamber approach to education and tackle inequality with greater responsibility.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and education analyst for the Asian Correspondent website.