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Story by Sasitorn Aksornwilai

Cover illustration by Kittiya On-in

The 2022 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), released in December 2023, have once again grabbed attention in Thailand after the performance of 15-year-old Thai students hit an unprecedented low over the two decades that Thailand has been taking the test. Poor performance has persisted for generations and serves as just the visible tip of an iceberg where numerous underlying problems are frozen.

The PISA assessment is not an evaluation of the entire education system, but it is an important tool to assess the average competence of a country’s 15-year-old students. The assessment covers three subjects: mathematics; science; and reading. The results report shows an educational crisis in Thailand that must be urgently addressed. The PISA results do not chime with Thailand’s annual budget for education. In the recently passed budget, the Education Ministry was given the second largest allocation. This raises doubts in society as to why the quality of Thai education continues to tread water.

Thailand's Performance in all 3 subjects 

(Photo from OECD)

Tanawat Suwannapan, a social science teacher and education activist, points out that Thai students from science and demonstration schools outperform the worldwide average. And compared to students facing financial challenges in remote areas of other countries, Thai students in similar circumstances do better.

This shows that if Thai students were given enough support, they have the potential to achieve higher scores. He remarks that while fundamental knowledge is crucial, the underlying factor lies in the way Thai students are taught to think. “Thai students’ big issue are training in thinking and reasoning. We are not talking about only PISA. Teaching methods in Thailand lead to students’ problems in all subjects. The problem is that children cannot read, write, or even convey their thoughts or feelings. So, they cannot progress to other areas.”


Critical thinking in Thai schools

The primary concern is critical thinking skills, which are reflected in the PISA reading test and other academic or social assessments. Tanawat explains that the key factor is the limited access of most Thai students to crucial resources due to social structures. Schools could be the pathway for students to access opportunities. However, the extent to which Thai schools allow students to express their opinions is questionable given that cultural values make criticism or discussion of some topics taboo. In Thai schools, rote learning becomes the only approach that is encouraged among students.

An evident example can be found in the area of history education. Tanawat, as a history teacher, emphasises that the fundamental purpose of history is to learn about historical thinking and historical methods to comprehend historical changes and the past, but history in Thai schools instead focuses on what is called “royal nationalism” and concentrates on the virtue of certain individuals, which does not encourage discussion among students but expects them to embrace a single narrative.

Many years ago, the history of the Nazis and Hitler was widely discussed in Thai society after a Thai teen idol wore a t-shirt with a Nazi swastika. The same thing has repeatedly occurred in the past with the Nazi swastika becoming fashionable in the country. “Thai kids are not unaware of Hitler or the Nazis, but the point is how they are taught about it,” he says.

World history is not given much coverage in the textbooks. As an example of a historical trauma, the teaching of the holocaust in Thai schools does not go beyond the facts of what happened. The curriculum does not delve into the broader context, its implications for the present and the future, or even how to prevent similar events in the future.

“Many times, we study history as a real history. We have not studied history for the future. We just remember the facts that happened. In fact, that’s not the case, we must study history beyond the past” says Tanawat.

He asserted that teachers are an integral part of education. They do not need to adhere strictly to the content of the textbooks; instead, they can design teaching methods to engage students in discussion based on various sources of information.

Tanawat Suwannapan


What’s behind the Education Ministry’s huge annual budget?

It seems that Thailand has made significant investments in education since the Education Ministry ranks among the top 3 ministries in terms of budget allocation each year. This year, the Ministry ranks second only to the Defence Ministry.

Tanawat pointed out that the primary reason for this is centralization. The bulk of the Ministry’s budget is allocated to the salaries of educational personnel. Among all government agencies, the Ministry has the highest number of employees, with 300,000 – 400,000 overseeing approximately 30,000 schools nationwide. Additionally, roughly 10% of the budget goes to individual support funds, divided between budgets allocated to each school and funds provided to each student to cover stationery, uniforms, etc. The remaining budget is allocated for investment and other expenses of the Ministry.

“If we compare it in terms of numbers, it’s a lot. but when you compare it with the task and what schools have to shoulder, as well as the resources needed to create quality education, it is not enough,” notes Tanawat.

Even if the Education Ministry and the Office of the Basic Education Commission are aware of this situation, it has not yet been properly addressed.

When it comes to debates and discussions, the focus often shifts to the perception that the Ministry receives the largest budget and teachers receive high salaries. He said it is true that some teachers, especially those who are close to retirement or hold administrative positions such as principals, may have higher salaries, but the starting salary for many entry-level teachers is only 15,000 baht per month, which is not considered high, especially when compared to the volume of work and responsibility that teachers have.


Teachers’ heavy burdens

In November 2021, the resignation of a young teacher went viral after she revealed that she did not agree with excessive and unnecessary paperwork, which wastes time and has nothing to do with teaching. This highlights a chronic problem within the Thai education system, where administrative tasks are seen as a challenge that undermines the overall effectiveness of teaching and education. No one will deny that when teachers enter the profession, they have to teach and interact with parents to support children’s development, but teachers find themselves overwhelmed by additional tasks, some of which they may deem unnecessary.

Apart from teaching around 20-30 classes per week, routine tasks classified into academic, finance, personnel administration, and general administration, add another layer of responsibilities. Some, such as curriculum management, require training in educational management and it is reasonable for these to fall under a teachers’ main responsibilities. But others, such as registration, do not necessarily require teachers, but most teachers have to do them.

These routine tasks are important mechanisms that schools must carry out, or the school will not be able to move forward. Many elementary schools also have to provide lunch for students but they do not have the budget to hire a cook, so the teachers have to purchase ingredients and prepare meals themselves for the children.

Lastly, there is what Tanawat calls “policy work.” For example, when there is a project that the school has to participate in, teachers have to report the results.  If a school administrator wants the school to win an award, the teachers have to produce a suitable report. “Many times, we have not made the learning of the learners the cornerstone. If we actually ask the learners what they get from this, we might give many things up.”

These burdens often result in teachers bringing work home. Term breaks for teachers are not as long as they seem. In Tanawat’s case, his work schedule runs until the semester ends in mid-April and he resumes work in May. He says that during the semester break, teachers are required to teach basic courses, which finish in early May, giving them a one-week break before the new semester starts.

According to regulations, every government office must arrange security personnel to prevent damage that may occur outside working hours. In most schools, it is teachers who do this. Male teachers are on night duty, while female teachers must be on duty during the daytime on weekends and during term breaks.


More inclusive and holistic investment

“First and foremost, we must acknowledge the problem,” says Tanawat

He proposes that the government reevaluate the allocation of resources, emphasizing the need for adequate resources and efficient management of schools and teachers.  In addition, in the era of declining birthrates, the issue extends beyond budget allocation, and the government has to navigate between the expectations of schools and communities. This is crucial, particularly when dealing with the closure of small schools, which could add to the burden on parents.

Secondly, if the Ministry fails to understand the contexts surrounding various types of school, the best viable solution is to decentralize. Schools and local administrations should be given autonomy in decision-making. However, this must go hand in hand with political reform in Thailand. He noted that currently, decentralization efforts in some ministries have resulted in small offices that are still under the central government, and sometimes budgets are allocated to them to complete the tasks as assigned. Tanawat notes that these issues must be addressed simultaneously.

He also suggested schools engage people from the community in educational management. Teacher education should also integrate perspectives from other disciplines to expand new possibilities in education. Teacher education in Thailand should change from the current focus on producing technicians to cultivating thinkers with a capability for holistic problem-solving.

He believes that these solutions would help create a learning ecosystem which involves not only schooling but also the whole society surrounding children’s lives. Children’s learning is not restricted to when they enter a school. He emphasizes that schools have to work with parents, communities, and other government agencies.

“If schools are specialists in learning and growing, they should be able to collaborate with the entire surrounding ecosystems. Only then can they address learning issues and solve educational problems sustainably, making it Education for All and All for Education.” remarks Tanawat

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