School mergers need extra care
Due to the country's demographic changes, with an extremely low birth rate in recent decades, the number of schoolchildren has declined to the point where education planners insist some schools must be closed down or merged with those in the nearby vicinity.
According to the Office of Basic Education Commission (Obec), schools with fewer than 120 students are not cost-effective and that means closure or merger is inevitable. It says that of the 30,816 schools nationwide, there are more than 15,000 that fall into the "small schools" category, with fewer 120 students enrolled. Almost 11,000 of them have fewer than 60 pupils.
The change will exclude about 2,700 small schools which are hamstrung due to their location, such as on islands or in mountainous areas, where it's too difficult for the student to travel to other schools.
A survey by the ministry indicated the number of students in Thailand dropped from 9.5 million in 1997 to 7.4 million last year. It is expected to fall by another 2 million over the next six years.
The ministry has insisted the number of schools must be reduced to match the number of students to make improvements in the allocation of resources in the basic education sector.
According to its plan, Obec will focus on merging those with less than 60 pupils.
As Obec reaffirms its policy, 12 small schools in five provinces are to be the first to undergo a merger with larger ones, in plans that were to be kickstarted before the start of the new semester last month.
Of the targeted 12 schools, five are in Phetchabun; four in Phitsanulok; and one each in Ranong; Surat Thani; and Prachuap Khiri Khan. Each of those schools has 60 students or fewer enrolled, it said.
Obec chairman Ekkachai Kisukphan said the measure is "in line with the Ministry of Education's goal of raising educational standards outside big towns and cities". He gave assurances that it will improve the quality of education in rural areas.
He went on to say the ministry planned to use a 6km distance marker as a merger criteria, meaning small schools within a 6km radius of each other could be merged.
The Obec chairman has dismissed concerns that this is too far, saying the proposed distance is acceptable as each student will only spend about "30 more minutes to travel to the new school".
But the agency should realise that transport in the provinces, unlike Bangkok, is not convenient. The more remote their town or village, the more difficult it is for students to commute and this could affect their learning.
There is at least one other glaring problem as the agency pushes for the merger of the 12 schools: a lack of teaching staff.
It's Mr Ekkachai who highlighted a problem which is so serious that, "when a teacher is present in one class, other classes have to go without".
He went further: "Some only have one teacher to cover all subjects for students from Grades 1 to 6, because the number of students is less than 20."
Mr Ekkachai said no one should expect a good outcome from "students who study in schools that only have one or two teachers covering all the subjects".
But it should be noted the Obec chairman, while pushing for the merger plan, stopped short of saying how the measure will solve the problem of teacher shortages or if the plan will ensure that schools can maintain the ministry's targeted ratio of one teacher to no more than 20 students.
In implementing the plan, the agency should not look only at investment per head in accordance with its cost-benefit analysis, but also take precautions to prevent or minimise adverse impact on the students.
This means it should be as flexible as possible given that each school in each area may have different problems and that therefore the solution must vary. The ministry should incorporate communities into the plan and be open to suggestion and feedback.
All agencies involved should be aware that any action under the plan should by no means compromise their stated goal of a child-centric philosophy.
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