ONE-THIRD of 15-year-old Thais are "functionally illiterate", the World Bank said yesterday, and suggested that the country reform its education system partly through merging and optimising the networks of more than 20,000 "non-isolated" schools nationwide.
Speaking at the release of its "Thailand Economic Monitor" report, the bank's country director for Southeast Asia, Ulrich Zachau, said slowing export growth evidenced in Thailand since 2012 was a "long-term trend" that had to be tackled by structural reform, raising the skills and productivity of its labour force.
"The single most important thing for Thailand is to improve its education and skills outside Bangkok," he said.
Finance Minister Sommai Phasee, who presided over the event, said he very much agreed with the World Bank that education and human resources were critical to the future of the Thai economy and its political stability.
"I dare not speak up in the Cabinet because there are three ministers responsible [for education and skills], and all are soldiers," he said. "We are still not walking on the right track and we are still walking slowly" in these areas.
The World Bank's latest report forecasts that Thailand's gross domestic product will grow by 3.5 per cent in 2015, primary due to lower oil prices, increased tourism receipts, and higher pubic spending. It projects that Thai exports will continue to grow slowly this year, by 0.5 per cent in US dollar terms.
Exports grew by an average of just 1 per cent annually from 2012 to 2014, a remarkable drop from the 13-per-cent average growth recorded from 2006 to 2011. The report said the decline was partly due to eroding competitiveness amid slow productivity improvements here relative to other countries.
World Bank human-development economist Dilaka Lathapipat said almost one-third of Thai 15-year-olds were functionally illiterate as defined by their lack of the skills needed to manage daily living and employment that requires reading skills beyond a basic level.
Small village schools are also severely under-resourced, making it difficult to deliver quality education because of inadequate teaching materials, physical infrastructure and less experienced teachers.
"The problem is particularly acute for small village schools, which face teacher shortages and have less than one teacher per classroom," he said. Hence the World Bank will soon submit a formal recommendation to the education minister to consider merging and organising networks of smaller rural schools to enabling them to optimise the effectiveness of good teachers and bringing better teaching to all classrooms, Dilaka said.
World Bank senior economist Kirada Bhaopichitr said a merger of smaller schools could be implemented because 85 per cent of the 19,864 small schools in Thailand (those with 20 or fewer students |per grade) are less than 20 |minutes' travel away from other schools.
Unlike a plan by the previous government simply to dissolve small schools, an idea that faced a lot of opposition, Dilaka said the World Bank would suggest that the government delegate to local communities the task of considering proper solutions for their own areas, while the government would focus on providing incentives for encouraging the optimisation of their schools' networks.
Not all of the smaller schools have to be closed since they can organise a network of nearby schools, including larger ones, to share teachers and resources.
The government can provide incentives such as providing transport or travel allowances.
According to the World Bank's study, Thailand could drastically reduce the number of classrooms with less than one teacher per class, from 110,725 currently to only 12,600, simply through merging its 9,421 "non-isolated large schools and 16,943 non-isolated small schools" and halving their total number to 14,252 schools.
"Otherwise, in a bid to increase the number of teachers per class in schools upcountry to be on par with Bangkok's, we would have to recruit 160,000 more teachers," which would be very difficult to do, Dilaka said.