Private schools in Thailand on shaky ground

Office of Private Education Commission (Opec) secretary-general Bundit Sriputtangul.

Year after year, Thailand has seen many of its private schools going out of business. And with this trend, there is a possibility that perhaps half - if not more - of existing privately-run schools will shut down in the near future.

Private Education Council president Jirapan Pimpan said there were now about 4,000 private schools in the country and fewer than 1,000 of them were famous.

"So, I must say that some 1,000 or 2,000 schools are at risk of closing down," she said.

It is not an overstatement given that many factors can weaken private schools and encourage their owners to shut them down.

According to Jirapan, the owners of many private schools today are the children or grandchildren of their founders. Among the second- or third-generation owners of such family businesses are those who are not interested in running a school.

That is a reason why nearly 400 private schools have shut down in the past decade.

Another key factor, Jirapan added, was the soaring land price in Bangkok and some other big cities. Owners of many schools have found out that the land their schools are located on can fetch a very good price or have huge commercial value.

The Sesawech Vidhaya School, which is set to close down on April 30, is an example of this worrying trend, Office of Private Education Commission (Opec) secretary-general Bundit Sriputtangul said.

"The heir of the school's late founder wants to use the land plot for another purpose," he said.

Founded in 1973, the Sesawech Vidhaya School sits near a planned Skytrain station. After its founder passed away, the heir has made it clear that the school will be closed, to the dismay of its students and their parents. Some of them are so upset about the news they have petitioned to the Education Ministry.

"We have tried to persuade the heir to keep the school open but we can't force anyone," Bundit said.

He insisted that very few schools went out of business because of financial loss, given that the government provides a subsidy.

"The government is ready to pay

for 100 per cent of the cost of organising educational services," he said.

So far, he said most private schools had decided to take just 70 per cent of the possible subsidy so that they could directly receive the remaining portion of money from |parents.

The government subsidy stands at around Bt10,000 per head at kindergarten level and it can go up to Bt20,979 at vocational level.

"I can tell you that a private school will likely reach the break-even point within five years of their launch if |those in charge have run the school well enough," Bundit said.

Jirapan complained that the government's policy to increase the monthly teacher salary of bachelor-degree holders to Bt15,000 has caused an adverse impact on private schools.

"When the government agrees to pay at that rate, private schools are automatically forced to pay the same rate for teachers who have held a bachelor's degree," she said. "If we don't pay, we will find it hard to attract or retain teachers".

Opec believes that private schools have also suffered brain-drain problems as teachers at small private schools often felt they lacked job security or had to make do with low pay and poor |welfare.

According to veterans in the field, thriving private schools are mostly big and have an efficient management system. Some school chains, for example, have even offered teachers a stake in the business to boost engagement, loyalty and work performance.

Bundit said Opec had been trying to help private schools tackle these problems through various measures.

"We are going to propose that the government increase the subsidy so that the additional amount goes directly to teachers' salaries," he said.

He said Opec, in addition, had been drafting a regulation that would award extra cash to private schools whose educational quality passed a set criteria.

"The criteria includes life skills, language abilities and literacy. This new regulation may take effect as early as May," Bundit said.

Jirapan said that several measures by the government had also adversely affected private schools.

She pointed out that private schools had also suffered from students dropping out to enrol in state schools.

"Many famous state schools have offered many rounds of [student] recruitment," she said. "At some schools, there are also as many as 20 classrooms for Pathom 1, etc. This is in addition to the many special programmes that have been launched."

On top of these factors, Jirapan believes that some private schools have management problems.

"When a school is run as a family business, it lacks clear direction," she said.

"Without efficient management in this regard, schools can't deliver an efficient curriculum."

Although Thailand has seen more than 1,000 private schools open in the past decade, Bundit said the |closure of some 400 schools could not be ignored.

"It should be noted that most schools open in the provinces," he said. "The |number of private schools in Bangkok and big cities is shrinking."