Thai education in free-fall under new charter: Education activists

Despite efforts by the military government to improve the appalling state of Thai education, reformers point out that the new draft constitution will plunge Thailand deeper into an education crisis.

Characterised by oversized classrooms, unqualified teachers, and rote learning, the Thai military government in early 2015 dissolved three education boards, including the country’s Teachers’ Council, in a move viewed by many as a step towards education reform promised by the coup-makers. But after the latest draft of the constitution written by the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was revealed, education experts complain that the fate of Thai education is even grimmer than before.   

The section on education appears in the 2016 draft constitution under Article 50 of Chapter 5 on the directive principles of fundamental state policies. In summary, the article states that the primary goal of education is to create good and disciplined citizens who are proud of the nation. It also stipulates that all children are entitled to receive free compulsory education and that the state shall ‘direct, promote, and support’ local and private education to conform to the national education plan.

(Prachatai's file photo)

Slashing budget from secondary schools

Analysing the draft, Athapol Anunthavorasakul, lecturer in the Faculty of Education of Chulalongkorn University, pointed out that the 2016 draft constitution will cause further disparity in education, which is already a problem in the country. He said that in accordance to the wording of the article, the state budget for students in their last three years of secondary schools will be withdrawn.

“The reduction of free compulsory schooling from 12 years to only nine years will worsen education inequality in the country,” wrote Athapol on his Facebook profile. “Although there are discussions about an education fund to take private donations [which would then be eligible] for tax reductions, the plan is not concrete yet.”

Parit Chiwarak, Secretary-General of Education for Liberation of Siam, a group comprising mostly high school students campaigning for progressive education reform against the junta’s controversial nationalistic 12 Thai values, also expressed concerns about the measure.

As a high school student himself, Parit said that many students studying in higher secondary school already face financial problems and that the draft constitution will only worsen the situation.

“The dropout rate of higher secondary school pupils is already quite high, so by withdrawing the budget for these students, inequality in education can only rise,” Parit told Prachatai. “Not only will students in regular schools be affected, but those in vocational schools as well. It might be even worse in vocational schools because this means that the budget for acquiring equipment, which is important for these schools, will also be cut.”

Recently the CDC spokesperson said that the budget withdrawn from the last three years of secondary school will be spent on providing three years of free kindergarten instead. Disagreeing with the proposal, Parit pointed out that although educating children at the kindergarten level is important, not every child needs to enrol in formal kindergarten schooling because the family plays a greater role in child development at that age.

“Judging from the draft constitution, it is as if they want to control the development of children from a very young age,” said Parit.

Increasing centralised control  

In addition to cutting the budget from higher secondary education, schools under the draft constitution will become more regulated and subject to centralized state control as the draft stipulates that the state shall ‘direct, promote, and support’ education.

Although the wording of Article 50 of the draft charter might not state this, Athapol criticised the draft for opening the way for the state to centralise the school system and reduce the participation of families, communities, and alternative education institutions.

“It will render useless any attempts to decentralise the education system and promote inclusive participation in education, which we have been working on for the last 15 years, and pull us back to an era of ‘state education’ which is not education for the people,” Athapol wrote on his Facebook profile.

He added that it is already apparent that Thai education has failed because the Thai state has not been successful in properly managing its resources for public education. Therefore taking the educational system back under greater state control will only worsen the situation.

Parit pointed out that unlike the 1997 and 2007 Constitutions, where the articles on education were written in the chapters on human rights and liberties, the new draft constitution puts it in the chapter on state policies. Therefore, education will become a matter for the state to determine.     

“The draft constitution is written in such a way that education becomes a matter of the state, but not the rights that people are generally entitled to. Therefore, the state could freely determine what to do with it,” said Parit.

The Secretary-General of Education for Liberation of Siam added that at present, local education is characterized by the unique identities of different regions of the country and that the draft constitution will allow the state to monopolize education by imposing a centralized curriculum to which educational institutions will be forced to conform.

This is not to mention the fact that as education becomes more centralised, the central government under the draft constitution will have more control over the education budget as opposed to local administrations, Parit added.

The youth education reformer also said that the draft states that the goal of education is to create good and disciplined citizens who are proud of the nation. In that case, he asked, “if an individual’s concepts [of good and disciplined citizens] differ from those of the CDC and the junta, does it mean that they are failures of Thai education?”

“In the 21st century, the primary goal of education is to create diversity and creativity. However, as we already saw in the implementation of the controversial nationalistic 12 Thai values in schools by the junta, I don’t think that the current government’s version of education reform will improve Thai education, especially with this draft charter,” said Parit.  

He told Prachatai “If their attempts to reform Thai education are successful, the outcome might be terrifying and detrimental to democratic society.”