Fifty percent of the 30,815 schools under the supervision of the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) are considered "small". Obec defines small schools as those with the number of enrolments below 120 students.
So, what is wrong with being small?
A recent study from the World Bank by Dilaka Lathapipat and Theepakorn Jithitikulchai found the majority of low-performing schools in Thailand are small schools.
Given the advantages that small schools have over larger schools, one major challenge that small schools in Thailand face right now is not having enough teachers for every grade. Why? Because teachers are assigned to schools according to the number of enrolments rather than the number of grades the school provides.
Therefore, if the school is too small, one teacher could end up teaching two or more grades in the same classroom. This condition is very likely to get worse as shown by the trend of a declining birth rate in the Thai population.
The total number of students has been decreasing continuously over the past two decades, from 8.8 million students in 1993 to 7.2 million students in 2013. The number of small schools has increased by 50% in the last decade. Fourteen percent of all students were enrolled in small schools last year (1 million out of 7.2 million students). However, the challenges of small schools affect primary schools the most; up to 47% of students in primary schools are enrolled in small primary schools.
Given the trend of a declining birth rate and budget constraints, it is inefficient to assign teachers to cover all the grades of small schools. Alternative approaches must be used to tackle this problem: such as effectively training teachers to teach two grades in one classroom, closing down schools in close proximity and relocating students to one central school, and creating networks of schools to share resources.
Educating teachers to teach two grades effectively may not be a long-term solution as the problem of insufficient teacher numbers will be magnified due to the declining number of students. According to the policy, one teacher is assigned for every 20 students. For example, a primary school with 40 students will only have two teachers to teach eight grades.
Closing down schools, however, will be met with resistance as local residents regard the schools as part of their community. Therefore, the creation of a school network to share resources may overcome this dilemma.
It is worth mentioning the success of a school networking effort in Pak Chom district of Loei province. In 2011, four small schools within 10km of each other jointly created an educational sharing programme called the "Kangjan model" to share resources — mainly amongst teachers.
Prior to the establishment of the school network, three teachers at each school taught eight grades. Therefore, each teacher was teaching two grades in one classroom. As a result of insufficient teaching staff, students performed poorly on the national tests. This raised the likelihood of the schools closing down and the students moving elsewhere.
The principals worked together with other stakeholders — including teachers, parents, local communities, Education Service Areas, and Subdistrict Administrative Organisations — to form a network where teachers and students of these four schools were pooled together.
They later created a new teaching programme where students are grouped together and each school is responsible for teaching two grades with three teachers.
After the networks are established, schools can overcome the problem of insufficient teaching staff numbers. Moreover, teachers have more time to learn different teaching techniques from one another, students can make new and different friends, and more activities are created.
The success of the Kangjan model was demonstrated through improvements in the national test results after the network had been formed.
On average, scores in the test results increased by 13%; and an impressive 27% in score increases in mathematics and English was observed. This improvement in the mathematics and English scores of schools adopting the Kangjan model surpassed the national average by 10%.
Further investigation is necessary to understand the significance of school networking and how it can be applied to other small schools currently under risk of being closed.
Tirnud Paichayontvijit is a research fellow with the Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.