By CHULARAT SAENGPASSA
THE WORLD BANK is urging Thailand to sharply cut the number of its small schools so as to improve budget efficiency and solve the problem of teacher shortage.
The recommendation came after an in-depth analysis revealed that there is one teacher for every 14.7 primary students, yet the quality of education is far from impressive. At the primary level, Thailand has the smallest class size in the world.
“While the number of students in Thailand has dropped from nearly 9.5 million in 1997 to just 7.4 million [this year], the number of schools has not reduced at the same pace,” Dilaka Lathapipat said in his capacity as human development economist at the World Bank.
He was speaking at the 14th Thammasat Economic Focus forum, which addressed educational reform.
According to the World Bank, Thailand does not need to maintain small schools because the transportation system has improved greatly. Even if some small schools are closed, children in the provinces will end up spending just half an hour extra getting to school.
Hence, the World Bank said, all small schools should be merged so resources can be shared.
And though some students may have to travel a bit farther, they will benefit from better education.
Currently, many small schools don’t have enough teaching staff, which means when a teacher is present in one class, other classes have to go without.
“Also, even if some schools are fully staffed, they still have difficulty retaining talented teachers,” he pointed out.
Dilaka said merging small schools would cut down the number of institutes run by the Office of Basic Education Commission (Obec) from 30,506 to 17,766.
If Obec adopted this recommendation, the number of classrooms would fall from 344,009 to 259,261. Likewise, the total number of teachers required to staff all classrooms would also drop from 475,717 to 373,620, he added.
As per World Bank studies, Thailand is performing well below the expected level given its per-student spending. Low or stagnant student performance is visible in both national and international assessments.
For instance, Thai 15-year-old students’ performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) continues to lag behind the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s average by 2.5 years.
Pumsaran Tongliemnak, an academic at the Education Ministry’s Policy and Planning Office, said Thailand needed to take action now that the problems have been identified.
“If we don’t solve these problems now, the gap in educational quality [between rural small schools and large, well-equipped schools] will only widen,” he said.
He pointed out that so many great education plans are drafted but without efficient implementation, success is difficult to achieve.
Assoc Professor Chaiyuth Punyasavatsut, from Thammasat University’s Faculty of Economics, told the forum that Obec now allocated Bt200 billion of its annual Bt300-billion budget to teachers’ salaries.
So, if school consolidation reduces the number of teachers, then Obec will have more funds to improve the quality of education, he pointed out.
“Competition for teaching positions in Obec-run schools is very high, because government teachers enjoy relatively good pay, job security, medical benefits for themselves and their family members, pension, as well as respect from others,” Chaiyuth said.
Govt teachers well paid
As per the World Bank, the average monthly wage for teachers in Thailand stood at Bt40,000 in 2016, and this number has risen over the past few years.
Meanwhile, Pumsaran said that though Thailand has increased special allowances for government teachers in recent years, the quality of educational has not risen.
“The best Thai student ranks 1,500th in the world, while the best Thai university is ranked 500th,” he said.
Chaiyuth added that he supported the idea of school consolidation because per-head expenditure at small schools was much higher than at large schools.
“Per-head monthly expenditure in large schools stands at Bt21,000, while at small schools it is Bt45,000,” he said.
The government spends Bt500 billion a year on education, and Bt300 billion of this goes to Obec.
The World Bank said “improvement in educational resource allocation in the basic education sector” would likely be the single most important reform that Thailand could implement.
It also pointed out that top and above-average school systems have consistently implemented policies in five key areas: institution, assessment, public spending, readiness to learn, and teachers.
If Thailand goes ahead with school consolidation, it will have already addressed two areas: public spending and teachers.
“The World Bank will release a regional report on these two key areas in October,” Chaiyuth said.