BMA fails capital's children in need
Whoever wins, the new Bangkok governor must bridge the appalling education disparity between the rich and the poor to give children in need a better fighting chance in life.
Whoever wins, he or she has no excuse not to. Bangkok has an annual budget of over 80 billion baht. Its administration is independent of the central government. Despite the huge financial resources and management flexibility, over 400 city schools operated by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) perform poorly. This must change.
Bangkok is home to top public and private schools. But in a fiercely competitive education system where money and family support are crucial for a student's academic success, these top schools are out of reach for children from low-income families.
They then turn to the BMA schools, hoping to get an affordable quality education to break their families' cycle of poverty. Despite available resources, Thailand's richest local government is still leaving poor children behind.
At present, the majority of 437 BMA schools are primary schools (Prathom 1-6). Eleven out of 50 Bangkok districts do not even have middle schools in their jurisdictions. And despite the BMA's plan to provide high schools in all districts, only nine out of 110 middle schools offer classes up to high school.
As a result, many BMA students are falling through the cracks.
The statistics are distressing.
In 2020, the BMA primary schools had 31,796 of Prathom 6 students. Only 12,378 of them continued to study in Mathayom 1 in the BMA middle schools -- a decline of nearly threefold in number.
Meanwhile, out of 10,770 students who finished Mathayom 3 that year, only 1,636 continued their Mathayom 4 in BMA high schools -- a decline of more than sixfold.
The BMA should be able to answer taxpayers' questions of why only 5% of its primary school students were able to continue on to high schools outside the BMA's education system.
What's worse is the fact that BMA has no data on where the rest of the students went -- whether they left the system to attend other public or private schools, or dropped out altogether.
The BMA also has no data either on school-age children in Bangkok who are not in school and need special intervention.
Most parents of BMA students are low-income workers in the informal sector without job security. They don't have the time or money to support their children properly. They also often move from place to place. These factors may affect their children's performance at school, but BMA schools have no means to intervene and prevent drop-outs.
For those who remain in BMA schools, the quality of their education is dismal at best.
Throughout the past two decades, all test scores of BMA schools have been well below national and international standards. For example, the Pisa scores of BMA middle school students have been below national standards in all subjects. The average reading scores of BMA students are also lower than their peers in other schools in Bangkok.
In the past three years, the Onet scores of Prathom 6 students have edged closer to the national averages in all subjects. Yet the Onet scores for the Mathayom 3 were still well below the national standards.
Their performance in mathematics and science reflects poor teaching quality. In the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), for example, BMA students fared worst among all types of schools, except for the Education Ministry's educational opportunity expansion schools in rural areas.
One piece of good news, though. The number of BMA schools that accept children with special needs has increased from 128 five years ago to 155 this year. Over 4,300 children benefit from this scheme which also provides special needs teachers.
Here are some of the reasons why the Bangkok government has failed to maximise its resources and administrative independence to improve BMA schools:
First, its conservative tendencies and top-down approach. The BMA religiously follows the Education Ministry's policies without innovation and systematic evaluation. It imposes similar programmes on all schools without responding to their different needs. As a result, the schools are overwhelmed with so many irrelevant projects that leave teachers and students little time to improve classroom learning and teaching.
Second, poor teacher distribution. Many BMA schools suffer from a serious teacher shortage when other schools simply have too many teachers. At present, 187 schools need 715 more teachers to fill vacancies. Yet, help is not forthcoming even when 172 other schools have 810 surplus teachers. Certainly a case of poor management.
Third, an overblown salary budget. For the past five years, the education budget of BMA schools has constantly increased. But more than 50% of the budget is for salaries. There are no special budget allocations for students in difficult situations, nor for curriculum and pedagogy development.
To bridge education disparity, the new Bangkok governor should adopt a new way of working, reduce the red tape, and mobilise support from other sectors in society. He/she should appoint a person with vision, experience and management skills in education and youth development as a deputy governor to take charge of BMA education. This deputy governor must be a good coordinator to engage other sectors in educational management with the BMA.
The winning candidate should also reduce the BMA's role as a service provider to become a service purchaser, facilitator and regulator. It should collaborate with other sectors and leverage resources to raise efficiency. To prevent drop-outs, for example, BMA schools can give "education coupons" to students in difficult situations to study in schools of their choice, or work with the Equitable Education Fund to identify and help needy students.
He or she should also give BMA schools more management freedom so they can develop their human resources and curriculum to better respond to their students' different needs. Cut down on the red tape and stop imposing top-down projects that are irrelevant.
Instead of building more middle or high schools and hiring more teachers, the governor should pay other schools to accept students from BMA schools. Better still, give them block grants so they can initiate projects to improve education quality and the students' quality of life. Remember, the BMA must take care of children in need in Bangkok, not only those in BMA schools.
He or she must also work with other sectors to create learning spaces for children in every age group, such as preschool centres, youth development centres, museums and libraries.
Develop databases of all students so the BMA management can design policies to effectively support the education of children in Bangkok, particularly those in difficult situations.
In a rapidly ageing Thailand, leaving a child's potential untapped wastes valuable resources. Failure to bridge the education gap also perpetuates gross disparity which entails a host of social and political problems. Allowing inequality and bureaucratic inertia to destroy a child's dreams is inhumane.
The new governor must break away from the obsolete education system. He/she must break away from the rigid top-down approach and adopt network governance by working with other sectors of society. The BMA must shape up. The new governor must do their homework because our children deserve much better.
Thunhavich Thitiratsakul is a researcher at The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.