According to the report, one-third of 15-year-old Thai students are “functionally illiterate” – they lack the basic reading skills to manage their lives in the modern world, leaving their chances of finding well-paid jobs slim to non-existent.
World Bank Southeast Asia director Ulrich Zachau pointed out that Thailand’s export growth has been slowing since 2012, part of a long-term trend. To change that trend, the Kingdom must launch structural reform to bolster the skills and productivity of its labor force. “The single most important thing for Thailand is to improve its education and skills outside Bangkok,” Zachau said.
The suggestion is not new. Successive governments have vowed to make education reform a priority, yet student performance has not improved. The World Bank’s findings are the latest evidence of that failure. Obviously the gap between what we know of the issues and how to fix them remains as wide as ever.
Finance Minister Sommai Phasee, presiding at the unveiling of the World Bank report, admitted he has been reluctant to raise the problem in Cabinet because he didn’t want to offend the ministers who oversee education.
“I dare not speak up because there are three ministers responsible [for education and skills], and all are soldiers,” he said. “We are still not walking the right path and we are still walking slowly.”
Sommai said he agrees with the bank’s assessment that education and human resources are critical to the future of Thailand’s economy and political stability. However, he needs to understand that he has a moral obligation to speak up, regardless of the type of government in place. After all, the matter at hand – the future of the country – far outweighs the egos of a few generals.
This involves more than the quality of our children’s education. It extends to the economic well-being of the nation as a whole.
Here, the trend in recent years has been alarming. From 2012 to 2014 exports grew by an average of just 1 per cent annually. This represents a precipitous drop from the 13-per-cent growth between 2006 and 2011.
The World Bank points out that the decline was partly due to eroding competitiveness and slow improvements in productivity compared to other countries.
Moreover, the disparity between public schools in the cities and those in rural areas must be addressed if we are to move forward. This means we need to improve resources for schools in the provinces.
It’s wonderful that we can produce a few students who excel in international competitions but, if the majority of their contemporaries are “functionally illiterate”, it reflects poorly on Thailand as a nation. More significantly, this disparity will have a negative impact on the country’s economic future, as the World Bank report notes.
One of the recommendations the bank offers the government is that smaller rural schools be reorganized and merged into larger institutions. This would optimize teaching efficiency and offer better-quality education in the classroom.
Thailand could slash the number of classrooms with less than one teacher per class from the current 110,725, to 12,600 simply by merging its 9,421 “non-isolated large schools and 16,943 non-isolated small schools”, the World Bank says. That would mean the total number of schools dropping to 14,252.
Raising the number of teachers per class upcountry to Bangkok levels could also be achieved by recruiting 160,000 more teachers.
There are no easy decisions, but all constructive measures must be taken into consideration if we want genuine reform that improves education. We can make a start by getting our priorities straight.
But the government is still placing the emphasis on saving face rather than securing the Kingdom’s future prosperity.
(The Nation Editorial)