BANGKOK – Everyone knows that nurturing children’s brains is good for an economy, in Thailand, school reformers have an extra incentive: to narrow differences between rich people in cities and their poorer rural cousins, which have led to a decade of political tension and occasional eruptions of violence.
For years shoddy teaching in Thailand has favored urban children whose parents can afford to send them to cramming schools or to study abroad. Dismal instruction in the countryside has made it easier for city slickers from posh colleges to paint their political opponents as pliable bumpkins.
The dangerous social divide is all the more reason to worry about Thailand’s poor rating in an educational league table published in December. Thailand limped into the bottom quarter of 70 countries whose pupils participated in the maths, reading and science tests organized under the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Its scores have deteriorated since a previous assessment in 2012, when researchers found that almost one-third of the country’s 15-year-olds were “functionally illiterate”, including almost half of those studying in rural schools.
Thailand’s dismal performance is not dramatically out of step with countries of similar incomes. But it is strange given its unusually generous spending on education, which in some years has hoovered up more than a quarter of the budget. Rote learning is common.
There is a shortage of maths and science teachers, but a surfeit of physical-education instructors. Many head teachers lack the authority to hire or fire their own staff. Classrooms are stern and bullying teachers numerous: in one incident that caused uproar in the media last year, a PE instructor was alleged to have struck a schoolgirl in the face with a mug.
A big problem, argues Dilaka Lathapipat of the World Bank, is that Thailand spends too much money propping up small schools, where teaching is poorest. Almost half of Thai schools have fewer than 120 students, and most of those have less than one teacher per class.
Opening lots of village schools once helped Thailand achieve impressive attendance rates, but road-building and other improvements in infrastructure mean most schools are now within 20 minutes of another. Over the next ten years falling birth rates will reduce school rolls by more than 1m, making it ever more difficult for tiny institutions to provide adequate instruction at a reasonable cost.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s prime minister and the leader of its junta, says school reform is urgently needed. But some of his goals are aimed more at boosting his prestige than making children smarter.
Soon after taking power in a coup in 2014 Mr Prayuth grumbled that few Thai children could cite the achievements of long-dead kings. He ordered schools to display a list he drew up of 12 “Thai” values, including obedience to elders, “correctly” understanding democracy and loyalty to the monarch.
Insiders say that some officials are working on better approaches. In June the government restarted a long-stalled plan to merge small schools; authorities say they hope to subsume more than 10,000 schools over four years.
Analysts worry that the junta’s effort to re-centralize government will deprive good schools of independence. But they also hope it will eventually allow reformers to force an ossified education system to adopt the best of international practice.
There is talk of education reform in a vague 20-year plan which the junta has promised to bequeath to the nation, and which future elected governments will be constitutionally bound to follow. Better hope that the army sets only its sanest policies in stone.
Source: The Economist