Will Education Ministry purge help raise teaching standards?

Originally published at AsianCorrespondent.com on 22nd April 2015

It’s almost a year since General Prayuth Chan-o-cha came to power in Thailand’s 12th successful coup, but during this time there had been little sign of the promised reforms that Thailand’s education system so badly needs. However, all that might now be changing with signs that this most urgent of issues is finally being tackled.

On April 17 Prayuth, now Prime Minister, exercised the controversial Article 44 of the interim constitution which empowers him to issue any order “for the sake of the reforms in any field… or the prevention, abatement or suppression of any act detrimental to national order or security”. The fact that the first use of Article 44, or the “Dictator Law” as its critics have referred to it, was to push forward reforms in the education sector underlines the desperate state of Thailand’s education system.

Prayuth used Article 44 to remove numerous senior civil servants at the Ministry of Education and close not one, but three education boards. Following these changes a number of the officials involved are now being investigated by the Budget Scrutiny Committee.

These upheavals in the Ministry of Education were signaled by two orders issued by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), order 6/2558 and order 7/2558. These in turn removed the Education Ministry permanent secretary Suthasri Wongsamarn and replaced her with Assoc Prof Dr Kamjorn Tatiyakavee.

The orders also removed the board members of three education boards:

the Teachers Council of Thailand (TCT),
the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Education Personnel and
the Business Organisation of the Office of the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Educational Personnel.
These education boards where then dissolved by NCPO order 7/2558. The work of these boards is now the direct responsibility of the Education Minister, Admiral Narong Pipatanasai, giving him unprecedented power to implement changes and reforms. Deputy government spokesman Maj-General Sansern Kaewkamnerd explained that these actions were taken to streamline education reform and were not politically motivated.

The Teachers Council of Thailand was responsible for teacher training, teacher development, the licensing of teachers and the setting of professional standards. It’s generally agreed that any improvement in the Thai education system needs to start with improving teaching standards so the removal of those individuals who have consistently failed to implement improvements is arguably a good place to start.

This news is also likely to be welcomed by many foreign teachers working in Thailand who struggle on an annual basis to bend to the ever-changing demands of the TCT, which issues teaching licenses.

The Office of Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Educational Personnel (OTEP) was established by the Teachers and Educational Personnel Council Act B.E. 2546 during Thaksin Shinawatra’s first term as Prime Minster. The board was created to “support the activities within the organization, to provide facilities and benefits, and to protect the rights of teachers and educational personnel. In addition, the organization will also encourage teamwork, maintain pride, and support educational research. Also, the organization will support education management including preparation for lesson plans and provision of teaching materials.” On occasion the actions of this department had caught the attention of the DSI for possible misuse of funds.

For all Thailand’s education problems the one thing that has not been missing is funding. Thailand spends a huge amount on education, equal to 20 per cent of the national budget, which, according to research from Mahidol University, is the highest in the world. But these funds have done little to raise education standards with Thailand’s educational rankings showing no sign of improvement. Following this cull of high ranking civil servants at the Ministry of Education, it’s likely that any suspected misuse of funds will be closely examined.

The culture of paying for promotions, which was recently exposed in Thailand’s police force, is also believed to be growing within the education system and the removal of senior officials could be aimed at rooting out corruption throughout the ministry.

Few would disagree that Thailand’s education system requires a radical overhaul if it is to compete with neighboring countries in both Southeast and East Asia. Removing inefficient and possibly corrupt leaders is clearly an important step but the question for teachers, students and parents is what happens now?

Reforming the Thai education is a monumental task. Teacher training and the adoption of modern, child-centered teaching pedagogies are clearly a priority as is an overhaul of Thailand’s outdated multiple choice national assessments. But simple issuing directives and approving new policies is not guaranteed to bring about genuine changes in classrooms across Thailand.

Thailand has a wealth of dedicated educators that genuinely care about raising standards in the country. There is also a new generation of Thai teachers coming into the sector that is willing to embrace modern teaching techniques, but without clearly leadership the situation in classrooms is likely to remain unchanged. What the Thai education system needs is a team of knowledgeable leaders who can inspire teachers to embrace change and make a genuine start towards raising education standards.

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