In a bold move, Thailand’s Bhumjaithai Party shifts focus to national pride in education. However, with dismal PISA scores and debates on conservatism versus progress, the nation stands at a critical point. Experts emphasise urgent reforms for global competitiveness.

Thailand’s economy, which is the second biggest in Southeast Asia, has for the last few decades been seen as a laggard with low growth and falling levels of inward investment. Unquestionably, one of the key reasons for this is a poor and underperforming education system. That was confirmed in November by disastrous findings from an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) worldwide survey where Thailand polled 101 out of 113 countries surveyed. In response, a new Bhumjaithai Party human resources policy was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Minister of Education Police General Permpoon Chidchob on November 17th. The initiative prioritises the cultivation of traditional values and pride in the nation over all other considerations.

On November 17th, key Bhumjaithai Party ministries in the current coalition government signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop Thailand’s human resources. The event saw Minister of Education, Police General Permpoon Chidchob, talk of creating ethical civil servants, while Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, acknowledging the country’s disastrous PISA scores in an international education survey, told his audience that the country’s nationhood was more important.

In the competitive world of global education, as international investment funds seek the brightest talent, the recent revelations from international assessments of Thailand are not good.

Particularly, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results which have sent shockwaves through Thailand’s educational landscape. The PISA results, which mark the lowest point in two decades, lay bare the critical shortcomings in English proficiency, mathematics, and science among Thai students.

PM Srettha Thavisin in November ordered a response but the Ministry of Education’s programme appears to be at odds with a modern transformative agenda

This alarming trend has ignited a fervent debate about the efficacy of existing educational policies and the need for a comprehensive overhaul.

Thai Prime Minister, Srettha Thavisin, has been vocal about steering the nation towards clean and green industries in the last few days. In any case, he clearly signalled a shift away from traditional minimum wage employment. 

While this strategic pivot aligns with success stories from nations like South Korea, Singapore, Estonia, and Ireland, it raises questions about Thailand’s readiness to compete on a global stage. Notably, these successful nations share a common thread – robust education systems that act as the bedrock for innovation and economic advancement.

In the wake of these global economic shifts, Prime Minister Srettha’s statement underscores the urgent need for a transformative education system. The correlation between economic success and a well-educated populace is too stark to ignore. Yet, this is what Thailand has continued to do in the last few decades. 

At one point, native English teachers working in Thailand were discouraged by a plan to use skilled up Thai teachers, the initiative was later reversed

In contrast, governments installed by military juntas since the 2006 coup d’état quietly derided English. 

At one point, there was a move by General Prayut’s first government, based on security and independence, to exclude native English teachers in favour of Thai teachers from within the education system. They were to be trained or reskilled to teach English. The policy was reversed in 2020.

Government seeks 10,000 fluent English speakers to teach in Thai schools in major policy reversal

The heart of the issue lies in the stark policy divergence within the Thai government. 

General Permpoon Chidchob, the Minister of Education, initially set the tone for a future-oriented education system when he assumed office in September.

He highlighted the importance of cultivating knowledgeable and skilled individuals, envisioning a cadre of young graduates equipped to navigate the challenges of the modern world. The sort of young graduates necessary for developing high-tech enterprises. Young people who question things and who are radically innovative.

Bhumjaithai programme for developing Thailand’s human potential at odds with the creative, innovative and questioning thinking needed for a tech future 

However, this narrative took an unexpected turn with the endorsement of a new programme led by Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. The occasion was a signature of a Memorandum of Understanding between the four Bhumjaithai Party ministries in government on building the nation’s human resources.

These ministries are Education, Labour, the Interior as well as Higher Education and Science.

The programme, emphasising patriotism and ethical thinking, seems to harken back to traditional values, raising eyebrows about its alignment with the needs of a rapidly evolving global landscape.

The dissonance between the original forward-thinking approach advocated by the Pheu Thai Party and Anutin’s emphasis on traditional values reveals a lack of cohesive policy within the government. 

Anutin’s influence seems to be steering the educational ship in a direction that contradicts the original stance of the Pheu Thai Party.

This policy schism brings to light the challenges faced by the coalition government in unifying on critical issues, especially in the realm of education but there are, increasingly, also other fronts.

‘Those who enter government service must have knowledge. In addition to having abilities in various fields, one must have a good attitude in maintaining oneself as a good, proud civil servant and understanding the importance of the nation’s main institutions,’ remarked Police General Permpoon during the signature event on November 17th at his ministry in Bangkok.

OECD Pisa 2023 report is confirmation that all is not satisfactory in Thailand’s schools and educational establishment. Change needed to power the economy

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for 2023 serve as a wake-up call for Thailand. Students’ proficiency in English, Mathematics, and Science has not only fallen below the international average but has hit its lowest point in over 20 years. The ranking, especially when contrasted against the achievements of neighbouring countries, demands urgent attention.

‘Even though our English is poor and our PISA results are low, we must be proud of our nationhood,’ commented Anutin Charnvirakul, Minister of Interior, during the memorandum of understanding signing on building the nation’s human resources.

Beyond the PISA results, Thailand faces an acute crisis in English proficiency, a vital skill in the global arena.

An EF Education First survey ranks Thailand 101 out of 113 countries globally and last in ASEAN. This unveils the extent of the challenge. The stagnant English proficiency index, hovering at 416 points compared to the global average of 502 points, prompts serious questions about the efficacy of language education.

‘If the government does not change its education policy, confirming the arrangement of English language teaching as usual, future results will likely be no different from now,’ warns Education First.

Call by Prime Minister Srettha Thavison for action to address the education crisis revealed in the disastrous PISA rankings impacting inward investment

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s urgent call for a response to the PISA rankings at a Cabinet meeting on November 27 places the government at a critical juncture. 

The quandary lies in choosing between adopting recommended reforms or maintaining the status quo.

The urgency of the situation demands an immediate response but one which must also look at the potential long-term implications for Thailand’s global competitiveness.

After all, these PISA scores are a red card for potential international investors thinking of setting up in Thailand, particularly those seeking workers with English, science and mathematical skills.

Bhumjaithai being in charge of education looks like it means a continuation of a policy which promotes a conservative and traditional agenda over progress

‘The Bhumjaithai Party has always presented itself as a conservative party. Going back to the time the government was established,’ said one political observer in August when it teamed up with Pheu Thai to form an unlikely government. The comment sheds light on the party’s historical stance.

The Bhumjaithai Party’s endorsement of a patriotic education agenda has added fuel to the fire. The party’s conservative approach, leaning towards instilling traditional values, has triggered debates about its effectiveness in addressing the pressing need for comprehensive educational reform.

‘The Bhumjaithai Party is on the conservative side that is not interested in structural change, therefore unable to progress in educational work,’ notes an analyst who was involved with the PISA findings, highlighting the potential limitations of the party’s approach.

Anutin Charnvirakul’s emphasis on patriotism and adherence to national pride, as outlined in the memorandum of understanding, raises concerns about a potentially narrow educational focus. Critics argue that such a strategy may promote rote learning, stifling critical thinking and neglecting broader perspectives essential for a well-rounded education.

But, of course, on the other hand, they could be wrong. 

This is, after all, the political party and gung-ho leader who revolutionised and effectively legalised marijuana in Thailand, in 2022, defying the consensus. Additionally, patriotism and healthy pride in one’s country can also co-exist with ambitious educational goals.

Sceptics fear that the Bhumjaithai Education Ministry will continue General Prayut era policies within the sector prolonging an authoritarian culture

‘It will be interesting to see where this direction will take Thailand and Thai education,’ reflects the same source who is sceptical, underscoring the uncertainty surrounding the long-term impact of this shift in emphasis under the new leadership at the Ministry of Education.

A deeper look into the emphasis on patriotism and conservative values reveals a host of challenges. Critics express concerns about stifling critical thinking, inhibiting students from questioning societal structures, and potentially limiting creativity. The focus on history and civic duties, while essential, may sideline crucial aspects of a modern, competitive education system.

Critics argue that the Bhumjaithai Party’s conservative focus aligns with the agenda associated with elites in Thailand, those in the civil service who control the levers of government as well as the Kingdom’s ultra-wealthy set. They seek to preserve the status quo. This perpetuates an authoritarian culture. 

The Bhumjaithai Party’s approach risks hindering Thailand’s progress by limiting creativity, stifling dissent, and consequently, reinforcing what has been a chronically unequal society.

More money and investment is needed. Thailand must follow the models used in South Korea and Singapore. It will also take patience, time and commitment

Experts analysing the results stress the critical link between education investment and average performance.

Countries like South Korea and Singapore serve as models, demonstrating that the establishment of a top-tier education system is achievable, even starting from a relatively low income level.

The key, they argue, lies in prioritising the quality of teaching over class size and implementing funding mechanisms that align resources with educational needs.

As Thailand works through these disappointing findings, there is an urgent call for a reevaluation of educational policies and an increased focus on investing in teaching quality, which has proven to be a pivotal factor in the success of leading education systems globally.

In the meantime, the Minister of Education General Permpoon, at one point blamed the pandemic for the poor results. There is some truth in this.

‘Compared to 2018, mean performance fell by 10 score points in reading and by almost 15 score points in mathematics, which is equivalent to three-quarters of a year’s worth of learning,’ the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report noted.

However, international education experts say the result reflects the relationship between persistent financial investment in education and average performance.

Thailand can raise its education standards, the question is: is it ready for the change that comes in the form of the next free-thinking generation?

‘Countries like South Korea and Singapore have demonstrated that it is possible to establish a top-tier education system even when starting from a relatively low-income level, by prioritising the quality of teaching over the size of classes and funding mechanisms that align resources with needs,’ says Education First.

In conclusion, Thailand’s education system stands at a crossroads. The urgent need for a forward-looking, globally competitive education system cannot be overstated.

The government’s response to the PISA rankings and its emphasis on patriotism over comprehensive reform will play a crucial role in shaping the country’s future. The nation’s economic prosperity and global standing hinge on a well-educated populace equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Navigating these challenges promptly will secure a brighter future for Thai students and ensure Thailand’s return, at some point, to growth and competitiveness on the world stage.

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Further reading:

PM upholds status quo as he seeks a path back to power with the help of the Bhumjaithai Party

Court rejects order against Chuwit as he predicts Bhumjaithai Party to win fewer seats than in 2019

Anutin may give up politics if the latest opinion poll giving Bhumjaithai Party 3% proves correct

Chuwit sets out to campaign against Bhumjaithai as Anutin tells Reuters marijuana is a vote winner