Education woes aren’t about funding

The education ministry has always received the largest share of the fiscal budget. The Thai government’s investment in education is actually comparable to that of developed nations based on the percentage of national budgets.

In the past decade, the education ministry has consistently received the highest budget allocation. It was only this year that it came second to the interior ministry. Nevertheless, the 328 billion baht it received for 2024 is essentially the same as the year before.

Therefore, it is a mystery why Thai students still fall far behind their global peers. Can more funding remedy this? No, the money might not be a solution as long as the Thai education system is entrenched in bureaucratic inertia, failing to keep up with the world.

What hinders Thai education is not the lack of funding. It is the education bureaucracy’s lack of will to fix the inefficient system for fear of losing the status quo. Therefore, this significant budget has not translated into quality education.

Thai students’ performance has been declining over the past decade. The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) assessment evaluates 15-year-olds’ skills in math, science, and reading across 81 countries every three years. The Pisa tests consistently reveal that Thai students seriously lag behind other nations. Their poor performance in 2022 was even worse than in 2018, continuing a downward trend since 2012.

This calls for a serious overhaul of the educational system.

The allocation of the 2024 education budget shows which direction Thailand will head to and how much we can hope.

According to the draft budget for the 2024 fiscal year, which received House approval in its first reading in January, the education ministry received 328 billion, almost the same as the previous year. The Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) gets the largest share of 252 billion (77%), an increase of 400 million baht from the previous year.

Obec oversees over 29,000 public schools, more than 245 regional offices, and over 500,000 personnel in the universal education system.

The breakdown shows that salaries for personnel take up the biggest share, at 184 billion baht (73%). This is followed by a subsidy scheme for the “15-year Free Education Programme” (FEP) for six million students from kindergarten to high school, amounting to 39 billion baht (16%).

Meanwhile, 10 billion baht (11%) goes to building construction and renovation, 8 billion baht (4%) for additional personnel, 5.9 billion baht for operational costs, 3 billion baht for special projects, and 900 million baht for some 40 extra projects.

Devils in the detail

A close look at the budget reveals a big gap between the budget for ordinary schools and those focusing on science and mathematics, or STEM education, so-called “science- and STEM-focused schools”. While students in ordinary public schools receive about 6,100 baht per person, science- and STEM-focused schools receive 770 million baht for 4,620 students, averaging 16,826 baht per student, a difference of 27 times.

This year’s educational budget introduces a 482-million-baht project called “Learning Any Time, Any Place” to promote digital learning. Although this project can complement in-class teaching, measures must be taken to prevent overlap with existing online platforms and avoid giving teachers extra administrative burdens.

Meanwhile, schools are assigned to conduct more than 40 projects unrelated to classroom instruction. This year’s budget for these projects is 626 million baht, a decrease from the previous year’s allocation of 710 million baht. While most projects receive less funding, the anti-drug and morally responsible young entrepreneur programmes receive more financial support.

Teachers must provide financial reports for these extracurricular programmes as well as 20 other subsidy schemes that target different groups of students.

Hope for change?

Following Thai students’ latest poor Pisa test results in 2022, researcher Pongtat Vanichanan of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) recommended three measures to improve education quality.

First and foremost, reduce teachers’ administrative burdens so they can focus on improving classroom teaching. Next, reform the outdated core curriculum. Equally important, improve small schools’ education quality and efficiency by merging, creating school networks, and increasing local community participation.

The 2024 education budget allocations do not provide much hope for change, however.

The current core curriculum has been in use for 15 years without major change. The same old syllabus still gives weight to passive rote learning over analytical training and other learning skills. Therefore, our education, as a result, fails to foster critical thinking and creativity.

While this curriculum needs a major overhaul, it does not receive any budget allocation, not even for some adjustments or any preparations for a new curriculum. Apparently, the essential change needed to improve education equality will not happen in the near future.

According to the TDRI survey, the biggest barrier to teachers’ primary duty of teaching is the time-consuming task of completing and submitting financial reports for numerous projects. To enable teachers to fully concentrate on teaching, the next education budget should, therefore, cut the number of these projects. This is possible by cutting some, merging similar projects, or using the same school performance indicators to reduce teachers’ administrative burdens and ensure accountability.

Paradoxically, despite a sizeable share of the budget going to educational personnel, a large number of schools still face teacher shortages, especially small primary schools, where 94% lack full staffing.

This situation is reflected in the Pisa results, where small, understaffed schools perform significantly worse, reflecting disparity in the school system. Since it requires an extra 50,000 teachers to address the teacher shortage in every school, merging small schools in the same area would be more cost-effective and enable students to have a better quality education.

However, community participation is vital. Local communities should have a say in the management, with a clear commitment from the government to support these merged schools adequately. Closing down small schools in remote areas where merging is not possible should be avoided. Instead, the government should provide sufficient support and incentives to attract teachers based on each school’s different needs rather than adhering to uniform rules and regulations.

Judging from the allocation of the new education budget, the best one can hope for is the new digital learning platform, a possible decline in drug problems in schools, and better performance in a few science- and STEM-focused schools.

For the majority of schools, however, the outlook is grim. The pain points persist, whether it’s in the core curriculum, teachers’ workload, or management inefficiency.

Without education reform, Thailand is condemning its future generations to a perpetual cycle of underperformance, hindering their ability to thrive in an increasingly competitive global landscape.

Writer : Thunhavich Thitiratsakul is a researcher atĀ TDRI.

First Publish : Bangkok Post 13 March 2024