Education in Thailand: Changing times?

Originally published at on 17th October 2014

Since coming to power in May this year, Thailand’s junta led by Prayuth Chan-ocha has been busy proposing reforms for a multitude of social agencies.

Concrete reforms to Thailand’s education system are yet to be announced but the need for substantial improvements in the education system appear to be universally recognised. Recently the Thai education system has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

– The latest World Economic Forum’s (WEF) report on education ranked Thailand last out of eight ASEAN nations.

– In the last PISA rankings Thailand came in below the international standard and ranked 50th from 65 nations, well below a number of other nations in Asia, including Singapore, China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam.

– In the Times Higher Education University Rankings 2014, Thailand had only two universities in the top 100 universities of Asia, and none in the top 50. When compared with the rest of the world, the situation was even bleaker, with Thailand’s top university ranked just inside the top 400.

And it’s not only researchers and academics that are aware of Thailand’s schooling crisis. The actions of Thai parents also highlights a lack of confidence in the Kingdom’s schools.

It is estimated that here are now over 100,000 “cram schools” across the Kingdom catering to students from grade 1 to grade 12. According to a report by NESDB, the average student in Bangkok spends over 6,000 baht (US$185) per year on extra tuition. The reason for this? Parents lack faith in the Thai school system and they believe their children need to study at the weekends to compensate.

The huge growth of international schools in Thailand also points to a lack of confidence in Thailand’s own education system. Since 1992, when laws limiting Thai students’ access to international education were relaxed, the number of international schools has grown from just 10 to over 160 (latest figure according to ICEF Monitor).

Solutions for Thailand’s education woes
Thailand has undergone massive social, economic and political change since the 1980s but the school system is still reminiscent of the 19th century. It’s clear that changes are needed. Everyone agrees with that but the more difficult questions are: Exactly what changes need to be made? And, how can these changes be effectively implemented?

In Prayuth’s last Friday evening address he discussed more ideas for improving education. These included more field trips; the improvement of living museums; and more opportunities for interactive learning. In previous weeks he has also spoken of reducing the amount of homework that students are given and a restructuring of the Social Studies and History curricula.

These are all valid ideas but they remain just superficial changes. The reforms Thailand’s education system require are far more substantial.

A good starting point might be a comprehensive programme of continual professional development for all teachers to encourage the adoption of modern teaching pedagogies. Again and again research has shown that the factor which has the greatest influence over student attainment is the classroom teacher. If Thailand’s schools are going to develop, then the changes need to start with teaching standards in the classrooms.

The second area which requires urgent reform is the nation’s assessments. Currently students undergo 12 years of education just to pass a multiple choice test. The sooner the National Institute of Education Testing Services (NIETS) develops an assessment better suited to assessing students’ actual abilities, rather than just their memories, the better.

Implementing Change
Developing initiatives and approving new policies is just the first step but these alone do not promise improvements at the classroom level. Unfortunately, Thailand doesn’t have a particularly good track record when it comes to implementing educational change and innovation, as can be seen from these well documented attempts:

– Student-centered Learning
In 2000 Thailand officially adopted student-centered learning. Rung Kaewdaeng, the Secretary General of the National Education Commission, ambitiously declared: “Learning by rote will next year be eliminated from all primary and secondary schools and be replaced with student-centered learning.” Any teachers unable to adapt to the new approach “would be sent for intensive training”. Needless to say this well intentioned innovation failed to materalise and a decade on, student-centered learning is still struggling to gain a foothold in Thailand’s schools. The initiative was sadly destined to fail because Thai teachers are generally not familiar with student-centered learning. They didn’t experience student-centered learning when they were school students and their university training pays little more than lip service to this approach. To expect a nation of teachers to instantly adopt a ‘foreign’ teaching approach without ongoing professional development was simply unrealistic.

– Corporal Punishment
Corporal punishment in Thailand’s schools is illegal under the Ministry of Education Regulation on Student Punishment (2005). However, it is still widely practiced in schools across the Kingdom with abuse going largely unreported. Parents often feel uncomfortable about complaining to schools for fear that their children will be further victimized. I’ve even heard Thai teachers arguing with students that corporal punishment is legal under special circumstances, so there would be no point in them informing their parents.

– Hairstyle Regulations
Just last year Education Minister Phongthep Thekpkanchana ordered schools to relax Thailand’s strict hairstyle regulations which require male students to have short hair. These regulations were first introduced back in 1972 when male students were forbade from “wearing hair on the crown and front of the head longer than 5 centimeters and hair on the sides of the head”. This decree signaled the birth of the military-style hair cut which has been begrudgingly sported by schoolboys ever since.

So what has changed since these regulations have been relaxed?

Well not very much. You only need to look at a group of Thai teenagers to see the boys still sporting crew cuts and it seems unlikely that they are doing so by choice. During morning assemblies at school the ‘Hair Police’ do the rounds looking for students whose appearance doesn’t conform with the 1972 regulations.

Changing Times?
For now we must wait and see exactly what polices Thailand’s junta introduce to raise the country’s education standards. Then the hard work beings. Will the educators in Thailand’s school be able to successfully implement the government’s vision? Can Prayuth and the junta succeed where others have failed?

Only time will tell….

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