Thailand is turning into an “ageing society” with a growing older population and a corresponding shrink in its child population. One of the consequences, of course, is fewer pupils in schools, which, in turn, means smaller schools.
This has prompted discussions in education circles about “small school consolidation” – the shutting down of smaller schools to merge them with bigger ones. However, many of these discussions narrow down the perspectives on school consolidation. It is being done for economic reasons, that is to limit costs, with no consideration to the quality of education, students’ access to schools and community ownership.
And, most of the debate is limited to questioning whether or not we should merge small schools. This tends to lead to a onesize-fit-all policy with two extreme sides. Either all small schools are merged or are left as they were, regardless of different local circumstances of the schools in question.
We are not the only ageing society. Others have experienced it for some time, and there is much we can learn from them. Japan is a leading example, and provides quite an instructive case study for Thailand.
In the decade between 1990 and 2000, the number of children in primary schools in Japan fell from 9.3 million to 7.3 million, a 21% decline. As a result, the number of primary schools with fewer than 150 students (the so-called “small schools”) in Japan increased from 7,400 to 8,000. However, since the early 2000s, small school consolidation has been accelerated.
By 2012 the number of “small schools” decreased to 6,800, accounting for as much as 32% of the total number of schools, even though the number of primary-age students continued to decline throughout that period.
Consolidation was actually agreed on by locals. They realised the process would reduce unnecessary costs and allow the reallocation of financial savings to improve public services relevant to the local communities’ needs.
The success of school consolidation in Japan was a result of decentralisation. People are involved in the allocation of budgets for their communities. They are able to vote for local governments and councils at both municipal and provincial levels.
It is in fact these local authorities that provide a range of public services, including education. They are also responsible for hiring teachers and monitoring the management of schools in line with standards set by the national Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
For instance, the local government has to hire at least one teacher to take care of one classroom. To help local governments meet the standards, the central government provides supplementary subsidies for teachers’ salaries and school management.
Additionally, local governments receive a “special budget” in cases where local revenues and supplementary subsidies are still not enough to cover all standard public service provisions.
What this means is that Japanese local communities are not under pressure to cut investment in one public service in order to improve another. As a result, school consolidation through mergers and closures has not been very radical.
However, the special budgetary support led to an increase in Japan’s high public debt. As a result, in 2000, the central government cut the subsidy. Local governments had been faced with limited budgets while still having to hire a number of teachers in accordance with central standards even as class sizes were getting smaller and smaller. In fact, in that year there were as many as 26,000 classrooms that had seven students or less, or 10% of the total classroom capacity.
Local governments, therefore, introduced more small school mergers in order to save unnecessarily high expenses and reallocate the savings to other public services. Before any mergers were pursued, they provided information on the pros and cons and conducted surveys seeking the opinions of parents and other people in the community.
These surveys showed that more and more people supported mergers as they realised students from small schools were less developed than others in communication and teamwork skills. At the same time, locals realised taking care of ageing people had become a greater need in their communities.
Moreover, different areas have different needs. In some places, schools are far away from each other, for example, and therefore there are fewer mergers because local governments recognise that would result in long commuting times. Some local authorities have redirected savings to improve the quality of education while others have used it to improve other public services.
Back in Thailand, the central government is the main body involved in promoting and executing small school mergers nationwide and deciding on what happens to any savings, while local people have no idea where those savings go. Basically, their understanding is that a merger means only cost cutting and the loss of resources from their communities.
The lesson from Japan is that we should discuss how people can get involved in the decision-making procedure. That would ensure savings are used to improve the quality of education and public services to meet the needs of locals. Eventually, this would allow small school consolidation to be a winwin for all stakeholders.
Supanutt Sasiwuttiwat is a senior researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). He won a scholarship from the Japan Centre for Economic Research in 2015 to study the lessons of education reform in Japan.