Education inequality – The state school teachers’ dilemma
At 332.4 billion baht, for yet another year Thailand’s Ministry of Education has received the largest budget of any ministry. In 2021, this major agency received budget just under 358.4 billion baht. The enormous amount of money pouring into the country’s education system has produced disappointing results.
Thai students’ academic performance has scored very low in international evaluations for several consecutive years. According to the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2020, Thailand was placed 55th out of 63 countries. In the EF English Proficiency test, organised by Education First in 2019, Thailand was placed 74th out of 100 countries, which means the country ranks third from the bottom for English proficiency among ASEAN nations.
We all know something has gone wrong in our education system, but what exactly is it? Thai PBS World spoke to public school teachers about Thai education, which they describe as being in a dilemma.
Firstly, we asked how big the crisis in our education system is.
“In my opinion, we are really in a calamity, if you evaluate children by using numbers or statistics, because children make the big leap forward in learning nowadays, but all indicators remain the same. That’s why our students fail in English, Maths and critical thinking, compared with students in other countries. It’s because of our same old structures”, said Hemmarach Sruangsombut, Thai language teacher at Baan Makha School, a small rural school in Nakhon Ratchasima province.
Having said that, he still believes that Thai student academic performance is good enough, but the problems are the assessment system and education inequality.
“Most students in big cities are intelligent. They are good at critical thinking, social media literacy, some of them even know how to invest in cryptocurrency or in stock trading, which is in stark contrast to children in rural areas. When these two groups of children are mixed and evaluated, to find the average results, the outcome will remain stable or decline. If, however, the quality of education for children in both areas were equal, the quality of the Thai education system would skyrocket”, the teacher added.
As far as education inequality is concerned, there are several factors which deprive pupils in small rural areas of learning opportunities. For example, one teacher teaches all subjects, as there is a very limited number of teachers in each small schools. The ministry of education attempts to tackle this problem by merging small schools, to reduce management costs, save human resources and improve the quality of education. So far, more than a thousand small rural schools have merged, according to the Office of the Basic Education Commission (OBEC). A small school with only 44 students, like Baan Makha School, has, however, survived the merger.
“Actually, we were on the list and shouldn’t have survived but, after the meeting between parents, teachers and the school board committee, the conclusion was ‘no merger’. This community loves the school and wants to preserve it for their children. We must, however, develop community empowerment and demonstrate to the authority that we are able to rely upon ourselves”, said Panumart Chimnork, the principal of Baan Makha School.
Due to government regulations, Baan Makha School is allowed only two government teachers, to teach all students from K.1 to Grade 6. The OBEC has, however, approved a budget for the school to hire two more teaching employees, with a salary of 15,000 baht each. All in all, four teachers teach eight subjects.
What happens is that, occasionally, students in K.1, K.2 and K.3 have to study together in the same classroom, but their learning abilities are at different levels. While the teacher is trying to teach K.3 students how to read, K.1 students run around, this adversely affect the learning process. Problems pile up because, when these K.3 students pass to grade 1, they are still illiterate.
Hence, the community and school management agreed to fundraise, to hire two more qualified teaching employees who live in this neighbourhood, and who could accept five thousand baht salaries. Nonetheless, it is very challenging for the school to raise ten thousand baht every month.
When asked what the most crucial aspect in the Thai education system is, the principal replied, “I think it’s all about teachers, because they are the ones who inspire students and improve the educational process, but all teachers in small schools have been overloaded with other tasks. So, how can we effectively teach our students?”
Meanwhile, teachers in larger schools do not have to handle other responsibilities, for example admin, purchasing, human resources or accounting. They can focus on teaching, although some teachers encounter other sorts of problems. One teacher at an extra-large school in a province in northeast Thailand admitted that she is afraid of confrontation after grading students according to their actual test scores.
“Students cannot fail,” said the teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous. She explained that teachers have to compromise, even when students have very low test results. If they grade them zero, it causes dissatisfaction in the parents and school management, and it could turn into a big issue. While she has not encountered this problem personally, it has happened among many of her colleagues.
“They get into big trouble and no one can protect them, even though they are working at full efficiency. This makes me feel so stressed because, if it happens to me one day, I really have no one to turn to”.
By Jeerapa Boonyatus