Don't leave any of the kids behind

Don't leave any of the kids behind

Two years and three months. That's how academically far behind poor Thai students are when compared to their richer peers, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Equitable Education Fund (EEF) found poor students only have a 5% chance of advancing to higher education -- meaning they are six times less likely to go to university that the average student. When it comes to funding education, extremely-poor families spend 22% of their incomes on education costs, compared to 6% among the upper-classes.

This added strain on their livelihood keeps some 670,000 children out of school each year, equivalent to a staggering 200 billion baht in annual lost opportunity cost.

These statistics reflect the state of education inequality in Thailand. Disparity in schools ensues when students fall short of receiving equal access to basic resources -- including adequate funding and school infrastructure, quality teachers and instructional materials and effective curriculum and activities.

Over the years, Thailand has worked to expand access to education for all. Its key policies include 15 years of free education from kindergarten to Grade 12, compulsory education from Grade 1 to Grade 9, and subsidies for poor and disabled students. Yet, despite these interventions and exorbitant funding on education -- averaging 20% of the budget or 4% of GDP each year -- our efforts to ameliorate education inequality has not yielded promising results.

Referencing Pisa statistics, Pumsaran Tongliemnak, an education economist at EEF, highlighted that Thai students in the top socio-economic quartile are academically about 2.3 years ahead of their peers in the bottom bracket in 2018. His finding was based on a 69-point variation in the students' Pisa reading scores, where every 30-point discrepancy equates to one year of schooling. In 2012, the score difference was 60 points.

Additionally, Thai students are heavily segregated based on their socio-economic status. The situation is particularly dire in Thailand, as only the socio-economic divide in schooling is only clearer in Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru. Segregation so early on in students' lives can lead to misallocation of resources at best, and socio-economic divisions at worst.

Pisa results also show the higher the students' socio-economic profile, the more likely they are to exhibit growth, efficacy and a sense of belonging in school and the less likely they are to fall prey to bullying. These factors correlate positively with academic achievements. The findings show how those who had a head start are poised to widen the between them and the socio-economically disadvantaged, both at school and beyond.

Associate Professor Chaiyuth Punyasavatsut of Thammasat University said education inequality is partly a result of teacher shortage, the failure to effectively hold schools and teachers accountable to students' learning outcomes, and the many small, under-resourced schools. Another cause is per-student subsidies that fund schools based on enrollment, benefiting larger schools more than smaller ones.

Since 2002, Thai schools are entitled to subsidies to cover five areas of tuition, books, learning materials, uniforms and student development activities. Local Administration Offices (LAO) also make top-up transfers to cover lunch and milk.

These flat subsidies, however, can be problematic as larger schools receive more state funding. With greater resources, they attract more students and parents' contributions, further stretching their advantage over smaller institutions. And within schools, as subsidies are divided equally across the board, better-off and worse-off students receive equal treatment.

Although the government does offer need-based subsidies, they account for only 7% of the total subsidies for individual students and do not link financial support to outcomes. Plus, they are not well-targeted towards needy students.

Responding to these shortcomings, EEF and the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) launched the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme in 2018.

Under CCT, the government provides 3,000 baht annually for each extremely-poor students to cover transport, food and student activities costs. To receive subsidies, they must have an average attendance of at least 80% and possess physical development traits which are appropriate for their age groups.

EEF filters students using two criteria. First, students must come from families whose earnings are less than 3,000 baht per person each month. In validating their self-reported income, they must pass the proxy-means test (PMT), which is the second criteria. PMT assesses welfare using eight household characteristics, namely number of dependent members, type of housing, living conditions, holding of agricultural land, mode of transport and access to water, electricity and basic household appliances.

Kraiyos Patrawart, EEF's deputy managing director of EEF, said CCT is reforming how Thailand allocates budget for education in a fundamental way, by supplanting supply-side with demand-side financing that heeds children's individual needs while introducing conditionalities to instill positive behavioural changes in students and their families.

CCT is gaining traction. As of the first term of 2019, it has touched the lives of 711,536 students across 27,805 schools. PMT has also been adopted by Obec's long-standing poor student subsidy programme to better target its recipients.

Education inequality poses an exigent threat to societal well-being and to name it a public enemy is not an understatement. It not only impedes academic outcomes and life prospects of the disadvantaged, but it also engenders untapped talents, perpetuates intergenerational poverty and amplifies socio-economic divisions.

Bridging the education gap is not about extending equal treatment. It is about leveling the playing field, so every student has a fair chance of realising his or her full potential. It is about making sure no child is left behind.

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