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23 February 2016
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Addressing three shortfalls in our education system

Nonarit Bisonyabut

For decades, education has been one of the major vulnerable areas for Thailand. We have witnessed at least three education reforms and yet another reform is happening at this moment. Despite much effort and a huge budget allocation, the overall performance of the educational system remains at a disappointing level.

To my knowledge, the Thai educational system suffers from three major shortfalls. The first is in terms of quantity. The average total years of schooling, measuring how many years of education a normal student receives before entering the job market, is around 8.7 years, far below the 12-13 average in advanced economies.

Another shortfall lies in quality. The ultimate goal of education is to prepare students for the job market. Students should obtain sufficient skills and knowledge in school to overcome the many obstacles they will undoubtedly face in life.

To measure the extent to which students are prepared for such obstacles, The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) is an international survey which aims to evaluate the education system in that aspect. The assessment finds that Thailand’s average score is 427, which is 14% below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 494 and, more importantly, 17% below 511 – the average score for Vietnam.

The last shortfall is related to inequality. Performances of Thai students also differ significantly across families and schools. Students with a stronger family (parents stay together, speak a foreign language at home) perform better, on average, in Pisa tests. The better performing schools are those that have more suitable class sizes, provide additional creative activities as part of a wider school curriculum, employ a suitably large number of certified teachers and have solid infrastructure.

Addressing educational problems in Thailand is not an easy task. These three shortfalls should be, and must be, addressed at the same time. An attempt to tackle the quantity shortfall alone, such as a “no fail” policy, will worsen quality. An attempt to raise the Pisa test scores without addressing the issue of inequality will create uneven educational opportunities.

To achieve the three goals simultaneously, I have analysed the latest 2012 Pisa test results for Thailand to understand the roles of family and schools in addressing the shortfalls. My findings are that there are four major factors that are key to Thailand’s education reform.

First, education of mothers is the key to their children’s success. Special education programmes for mothers can improve student development.

Second, a two-parent family is better for child development. To improve the education system, the government needs to do more than simply reforming rules and regulations, financing and schools’ management. The reform must also tackle social issues such as divorce.

Thirdly, school size is very important. The best schools should have the right balance of overall size and class size to optimally stimulate students’ learning. Fourthly, extracurricular activities do matter. Students who study in schools with activities, on average, produce better test results. It is therefore important for every school to find the right activities that promote a students’ learning capabilities.

Finally, it is important to note that the task of education reform is not solely in the government’s hands. One important implication of my study is that family factors also play a crucial role in students’ success.

Parents can influence the outcome directly by recognising their own education is an important factor. They need to know how to manage their children’s education. Selecting the right school is also important to ensure their children have the best learning environment.
A by-product of choosing the best school is that it forces institutions to improve quality to meet demand. Most importantly, parents can play an important role in influencing the performance and achievements of their offspring. It is a huge responsibility that must be faced by every mother and father.

Nonarit Bisonyabut is a research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First published: Bangkok Post, January 27, 2016