Opinion: Like our other problems, the key to fixing education system is decentralization

Talk to anyone involved in education in Thailand and they will tell you that the system, as it is, is broken. From high ranking officials within the Ministry of Education to the teachers trying their best in tough situations in the countryside, all will agree that something must change both in terms of policy and material distribution.

The kids protesting for education aren’t wrong when they say that the state narrative too often focuses on state myths, adherence to authority, and inside the box thinking. But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the country’s education system.

Take for example, our multitudes of exams which become make-or-break cram fests for students as they look to get into university. Or take the fact that Thailand does consistently average to below average when it comes to foreign language scores and other education metrics across the region.

It is no one person’s fault and it is no fault of any one administration. Rather a century of bad practices has culminated in the most highly funded ministry (more than defense) being the least efficient.

Many have tried to implement various strategies to help change this. Some have achieved a degree of success, including liberalizing the education system under previous governments, and failures. But like many government policies in our country, our political stability has threatened and eroded gains.

This is not a diatribe against the military government, there is plenty of that elsewhere on this website. This is just an observation that it is hard to plan long term strategy when the last two decades have been marred by political instability and a constant change in government.

When Prayut Chan-ocha seized power in 2014, he immediately and deliberately instituted his ideas for higher education. That includes instilling his values program which promotes nationalism and martial thinking and tasked technocrats with instituting other reforms. We heard promises that standardized testing might go out the window for a more holistic and encompassing curriculum, that came to pass.

We heard that more funding would go to provincial schools in hard to reach areas. But that also has not completely manifested itself. I do not blame former education minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, who unlike other cabinet ministers were willing to at least hear the grievances of the students, and who tried to liberalize the ministry as much as he could. While I don’t agree with some (or most) of their politics, the last three education ministers under the Prayut government including Khun Nataphol, Khun Trinuch Thienthong, and Khun Teerakiat Jaroensettasin have all tried their best.

That they failed is not a result of ideological dogma or a lack of effort but institutional hurdles that accompany any ministry the size of the education ministry.

Like many of our problems in Thailand, the solution is not a top-down, all-encompassing executive order from the minister’s or prime minister’s office.

The solution is the decentralization of power, the funding of local villages and schools, the promotion of secondary, vocational, and higher education through scholarships aimed at the country side, the constant training and re-training of teachers, and giving autonomy to local entities about what is best do with the funding.

Having spent time in the countryside for various non governmental initiatives, I am always struck and impressed by the capability of local education administrators and teachers. They know best what their students need and when a student is truly excellent they know when to pass the baton.

Thailand must empower these people to carry out and enhance what they are already doing while readily funding those with potential to go on and exceed in a much wider, thorough, and more comprehensive scale.

And while longer philosophical discussions centered around the role of education in shoring up state institutions and national identity must be had at a later date, the first step in ensuring equal access to education is decentralization.

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