28 weeks later: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
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28 weeks later: Education reform in Thailand under the junta

WHEN the military junta came to power in May 2014, it vowed to bring an end to corruption and reform Thailand’s underperforming civil institutions, amongst which the education system was a clear priority.

The failings of the Thai education system have been well documented, with the country coming last out of eight ASEAN nations included in the latest WEF education report, 50th out of 65 nations in the most recent PISA rankings and 54th from 56 nations in English language proficiency according to the IMD World Competitiveness report.

These results have come as no great surprise. Thailand’s education has had problems for a long time and governments keep throwing money at the problem without any success. Thailand now spends 20 percent of the national budget on education – 4.6 trillion baht (US$140.3 billion) in 2012. Money is being spent, but it’s simply being used ineffectively. The education system also overloads students with study in a hope that by spending more hours in class their education will improve. Thai students often spend over 3,000 hours per year in class, which is as much as five times more hours than their European and American counterparts.

Additional hours in the classroom aren’t helping and neither is increased funding. Clearly something is wrong and reform is needed but it is easier to diagnose that something is broken than fix it. Education reform is an extremely complex issue. Governments in Thailand and around the world find it far easier to tweak educational systems than actually reform them because education is a particularly complex institution with multiple stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, academics, politicians and employers.

So what has the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) done to tackle this most urgent of issues? Well not very much – a few tweaks and a lot of talk, but nothing substantial, and certainly no grand vision for the future. We’ve had calls to reduce homework, the Social Studies curriculum has been restructured and schools have been asked to place a greater emphasis on teaching the “12 core values” for Thai citizens. None of this warrants the term ‘reform’.

Educational reform requires vision. What are the aims, the purpose and the vision for this new education system? Where is it headed? How will students who graduate from the new system differ from the previous generation? How well will this system prepare today’s learners for the demands of an uncertain tomorrow?

These are all big-picture ideas which need to be considered and discussed in a public forum. The education of the nation’s children is a concern for everyone. America provides a good example of how the input from multiple stakeholders can effectively influence the development of education systems. In 2002 a group of educators, academics, business leaders and politicians collaborated to debate the direction for student learning in the 21st century. This resulted in the formation of the ‘Framework for 21st Century Learning’, which has proven to be successful both in the States and around the world. In order to create a consensus on reforming Thailand’s education system its new vision and purpose needs to be discussed in a public forum with input from educators, academics, business leaders, parents, students and politicians – not a secretive meeting held behind closed doors with civil servants and ex-military officers.

Another reason that the NCPO should incorporate a cross section of society when drawing up this new vision for Thai education is because education reform is a monumental task which takes years to successfully implement. If Prayut and his cabinet intend to hand over control to a civilian government within two years, they will need to make a substantial start on this task now and be confident that the incoming leaders are equally invested in this vision. If not, we will find the incoming government issuing another ‘reform’ and students across the nation caught up in an educational merry-go-round.

Countries where education reform has been successful have begun by setting a clear visions focusing on a limited number of key goals. The key has been internally generated change which has to start with continual professional development rather than just churning out yet another curriculum.

The Thai Ministry of Eduation curriculum is not as poor as the country’s academic results suggest. If you compare the standards for core subjects such as mathematics and science with Western nations, you will see that all the core topics are covered. Furthermore, the development of problem solving and critical thinking skills are covered in the current curriculum. For all the talk of schools not teaching critical thinking skills, this is not a fault that can blamed directly on the curriculum.

Nevertheless, governments like to rubber stamp new curricula. It’s easy to produce a large wordy document containing a broad outline of the leader’s plans – signed, sealed and then sent out to schools around the nation. But this large document on its own changes very little for students unless the teachers in Thailand’s classrooms are given the necessary training to implement it effectively.

What needs to be addressed is the method of instruction, and the systems of assessment. Until these areas are improved the quality of education is going to remain mired in mediocracy. If the NCPO is serious about improving the Thai education system, these are the areas it should focus on. By investing in the quality of the individuals that lead learning in the classroom the NCPO has a far greater chance of improving Thai students’ education, rather than simply churning out another curriculum with a restructured Social Studies framework and a greater focus on Thai values.

The junta’s tenure will be closely scrutinized at home and abroad for years to come. It has already drawn fierce criticism for the removal of a democratically elected government but it could still create something positive by once and for all reforming the Thai education system. To do this it needs to collaborate with all stakeholders and develop a clear vision for an education system that will equip Thai students with the skills to live successfully in the 21st century. This should be followed by investing heavily in a national professional development campaign to ensure Thailand’s teachers adopt modern teaching techniques. Finally, an overhaul of the current assessment system, moving away from multiple choice questions towards a literary-based test system like Pisa, would put Thailand’s schools on the road to improvement.

If the junta can begin a genuine reform of the Thai education system, it will have, at least, increased students’ opportunities for the future. If not, its promises of improving the lives of Thai people will be weakened further still.