Educational inequality in Thailand: Time running out for promised junta reforms

    As another school year comes to a close, Thailand seems no closer to solving the problems that have plagued the country’s education system for years. This is despite the ambitions of Prayuth Chan-ocha and the NCPO’s to implement reforms on all of the country’s social institutions.

    By Saksith Saiyasombut & Siam Voices Mar 16, 2015 11:13AM UTC

    By Daniel Maxwell

    As another school year comes to a close, Thailand seems no closer to solving the problems that have plagued the country’s education system for years. This is despite the ambitions of Prayuth Chan-ocha and the NCPO’s to implement reforms on all of the country’s social institutions.

    Reforming the Thai education system is a monumental task which successive governments have failed to achieve and no one was expecting an instant cure, but if there is to be an education reform some important steps need to be taken soon. There remain a myriad of challenges requiring urgent attention including; the no fail policy, the quality of the O-NETs, over-sized classes, inadequate teacher training, a continued reliance on rote learning, and poor English language standards.

    These are all important issues that require attention, but above all these sits an even more serious issue with far reaching consequences – educational inequality in Thailand.

    Thailand’s policy for equal opportunities in education is detailed in the 1999 Thai National Education Act, as seen below.

    Chapter 2 Educational Rights and Duties
    Section 10: In the provision of education, all individuals shall have equal rights and opportunities to receive basic education provided by the State for the duration of at least 12 years. Such education, provided on a nationwide basis, shall be of quality and free of charge.

    Chapter 4 National Educational Guidelines
    Section 22: Education shall be based on the principle that all learners are capable of learning and self-development, and are regarded as being most important. The teaching-learning process shall aim at enabling the learners to develop themselves at their own pace and to the best of their potentiality.

    The Education Act makes a clear commitment for all learners to attend school and reach their individual potential regardless of where they live or which school they attend. These are admirable ambitions, and they share similarities with the education policies of nations across the world. The problem is that these aims are not being realised and evidence of this can be found in international education reports, the annual results from national assessments, the intense competition for places at Thailand’s top schools and the disturbing reality that thousands of children are missing out on primary education.

    Jirada Prasartpornsirichoke and Yoshi Takahashi from the Graduate School for International Development and Cooperation, Hiroshima University, highlighted the inequality of Thailand’s education system in a 2013 report which uncovered some unsettling statistics. First, the average number of years schooling for Thai children is just 7.63 years, the 1999 Education Act stipulates 9 years of compulsory schooling so clearly a huge proportion of children are missing out at even these most fundamental levels. Prasartpornsirichoke and Takahashi also reported gender disparity of educational opportunity in Thailand and the report concluded that there is “a chronic problem of inequality of education in Thailand’.

    Moving forward to 2015 and things show little sign of improving. Ichiro Miyazawa from the literacy and lifelong learning programme at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation recently reported that over half a million children in Thailand are still missing out on primary education. According to this most recent data, the only countries in Asia with a worse record of opportunities for education are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. With such a huge number of students falling short of receiving a basic primary education, those aspirations of developing students to realise their full potential are clearly failing to materialise. Any education reforms that Thailand’s leaders propose need to engage these half million children who are currently missing out on this fundamental human right.

    Getting students to school is only the first step in tackling the inequalities of the Thai education system. There is still a huge disparity between the standards of education in schools across the country which leave students’ chances of realising their full potential subject to factors far beyond their control.

    At the primary school level, Thailand’s national assessments (the O-NETs) provide clear evidence of inequalities in the Thai school system with students in private schools consistently outperforming students from government schools. Students from families that can afford private primary school education have a greater chance of gaining an adequate grasp of fundamental academic principles. Based upon national averages for students at private schools and government schools, the disparity between these groups ranges from 10% in Thai to over 20% in English. These results clearly contradict the intentions of equality outlined in the Thai Education Act.

    National Averages – Grade 6 O-NET 2012
                              Private Schools              Government Schools
    Thai                        50.71%                                  40.65%
    English                   47.36%                                  26.63%
    Mathematics        42.22%                                  29.32%
    Science                  41.87%                                  33.05%

    But the problem isn’t as simple as just disparities between government schools and private schools. Kaewmala’s commentary on the 2011 O-NETs reveals that while the average O-NET scores are a genuine concern, they are not nearly as disturbing as fact that “more than half (over 200K or 59%) of M.6 students who took the O-NET exam got just 10-20% of the right answers in the English subject; nearly half (47%) were in the bottom 10th percentile who got just 0-10% of the Math answers right; and just about half (52%) got 20-30% of the Sciences answers right.”

    With half the student population failing so dismally in Thailand’s own national assessments it is hardly surprising that competition for places at schools with established reputations is fierce. What is interesting is that at the secondary level, these top schools are more usually large urban government schools. Entrance examinations for students hoping to join Thailand’s top secondary schools are frequently sat by thousands of students. Parents will often send their children to weekend tutor schools for years in advance to prepare them for these high-stakes assessments. If educational equality existed in Thailand and all schools were able to support students to realise their full potential, there would not be this pressure on students. It’s obvious that large numbers of Thai students (and Thai parents) are well aware of the inequalities of the Thai education system and do everything they can to avoid becoming victims of the system.

    Inequality in the Thai education system has serious implications for the concept of meritocracy in the country. Adam Swift explains the concept of meritocracy in education as “people with the same level of merit—IQ plus effort—should have the same chance of success. Their social background shouldn’t make any difference” (2003). If everything is fair and equal, students will succeed as a result of their merit and natural intelligence.  However, if the education system does not provide an equal playing field, students’ success can be outweighed by other factors and meritocracy becomes a myth. Rahim explains the failure of meritocracy in Singapore, which has similarities to the situation in Thailand. “The rhetoric that Singapore is a meritocratic society where equal opportunities are available to all has also served to add legitimacy to the cultural deficit thesis which infers that Malays have not been able to make it in a meritocratic society because they have not worked hard enough and thus have only themselves to blame” (1998). In Thailand the Education Act promises equality and meritocracy but the reality is that students suffer as a result of educational inequalities and are then blamed and left to suffer for these failures.

    The problems of educational equality have consequences that reach far beyond an individual’s ambitions and they carry significant importance during this period of Thailand’s development. Elizabeth Anderson in her report ‘Fair Opportunity in Education: A Democratic Equality Perspective’ argues that equality and educational opportunities are essential for a fair democratic society. She explains that positions of responsibility in society such as managers, professionals, consultants and politicians, positions she refers to as ‘elites’, should be comprised of individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds. Anderson goes on to explain: “The knowledge and skills elites need to serve everyone are essentially distributed  across all social sectors, or best created in socially integrated cooperative  settings, and hence require that the elite be constituted from all social sectors and educated so that members from all sectors learn to work together on terms of equality” (2007).

    For Thailand to break free from its current cycle of elections, protests, civil unrest and military coups, and move towards a genuinely democratic society it needs to forge an education system that supports all students. An education system that embraces all children and enables all students to reach their potential regardless of their background or the school they attend.

    If this government are going to initiate the educational reform that will do this, it will need to make a start soon because, with elections expected in 2016, it is beginning to run out of time. In what appears to be a sign that Prayuth realizes he is working within a diminishing timeframe, he recently announced that he would be leading the education ‘Super-board’ in an attempt to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that has hindered reform so far. For now it remains to be seen if Prayuth and this ‘Super-board’ will have the clout to implement the educational changes that students in Thailand so desperately deserve, changes that should increase access to education for all children in the country, raise standards in rural schools, and reduce the inequalities across the country.

    About the author:
    Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator who has been living and working in Southeast Asia since the late 1990s. An English literature graduate from the University of London, Daniel previously worked with the publishing company EMAP before relocating to Asia. Found elsewhere: Maxwell’s Notes