Closing small schools is a huge mistake
One of the main reasons cited by Education Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana to back up his policy to close small schools is because they offer poor-quality teaching.
One teacher who disputes this is Suchart Meesombat, director of Sapanyoong Primary School in Chumpon's Lang Suan district.
With only 82 students, Sapanyoong is categorised as a small school, and as such is facing closure. However, its Ordinary National Education Test (Onet) scores are not only above average, they are actually among the top 10 in its primary education service area.
In addition, Sapanyoong has been awarded "outstanding school" status in Lang Suan.
"And our school is not an exception," said the school director. "More than half of the top 10 Onet scorers in our area are small schools. How can you say all small schools are of poor quality?"
When he met with other school directors in Bangkok this week to discuss ways to counter the Education Ministry's push to close small schools, he found that small schools in other provinces are also among top-10 Onet scorers.
"The government gives small schools a very limited budget, but we can mobilise support from the community. With smaller classes, we can pay closer attention to our students. That's why they do well in school and in exams," Mr Suchart said. "They are also much happier."
According to the Education Ministry, primary schools with fewer than 200 students are categorised as small. Priority for closure will be given to those with fewer than 60 students. The ministry insists these schools are not cost-effective and are poor in quality. Moving students to bigger schools will help cut costs and improve students' education, it says.
Closing small schools is not a new policy. With fewer children, better roads, and the Bangkok-centric education system, parents who can afford it prefer to send their children to city schools, giving rise to the small school phenomenon.
Those remaining in village schools are those whose parents prefer schools close to home, or the poor who cannot afford the transportation costs.
The Education Ministry's response to an increasing number of small schools is to simply close them. Thousands of schools have been closed without community say in the past decade. Kids end up facing the same problems _ long and exhausting trips to schools, car accidents during the monsoon season, high transportation costs, and the erosion of community spirit once the school is gone.
Shared experiences have fostered a nationwide network of local resistance against mandatory school closures. An alternative education movement has also been launched to mobilise community support, create local curricula and equip students with local skills and pride.
In its latest push to close small schools, the education minister has tried to defuse resistance by promising to listen to communities and to provide 1,000 vans to transport students to their new schools.
We are talking about at least a 1-billion-baht van purchase scheme here.
With the same number of school directors and teachers to be paid, plus more expenses for van purchases, maintenance and petrol, the minister's cost-cutting talk becomes laughable.
The stated figure of 1,000 vans also reveals that the ministry has in mind the closure of at least 1,000 schools, with or without community consultation.
"Why invest in vans, not children? Wouldn't it be better to give that amount of money to small schools to hire more teachers and improve their standards?" Mr Suchart asked.
"When talking about closing small primary schools, we also forget that we're talking about kindergartners too, who would be forced to get up very early and travel a long distance to schools far from home. Are we sure that they will be well taken care of? Do we want our kids to be exposed to risks?"
The policy to close small schools goes back to the Education Ministry's highly centralised system, he said.
"We must decentralise," he urged. "Right now we cannot even select our own teachers. They are sent from the power centre. If schools could choose what it is best for their students and their localities, we could do away with many problems, including the question of what to do with small schools."
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.