MADISON, Wis. — Education in Thailand has a rich cultural and political history. Formal Thai education began as early as the 13th century with the development of the Thai alphabet. Members of the male nobility and royalty were educated at the Royal Institution of Instruction, while boys of the common class often received education at Buddhist temples from highly educated monks, skilled in grammar, fine arts, medicine, law, astronomy and math.
It was not until 19th century, with the first of Thailand’s three waves of education reform, that girls were allowed to receive an education. Beginning in 1868 and lasting through 1910, the first wave of reform emphasized the development of education as a secular institution. English and commerce were brought to the forefront of Thai studies, as the nation’s central position allowed Thai leaders to acknowledge the importance of English communication, as well as participation in a quickly globalizing market. Education was also centralized and standardized in this period.
The second wave of Thai education reform started in 1973, and spanned through the remainder of the decade into 1980. Coming to fruition among waves of military rule and political unrest, the reform was sparked by reaction to student activism in the period. With the October 1973 arrest of student activist Thirayudh Boonmi, a student uprising further rocked the country’s stability, amassing 80,000 protesters by October 13. Thailand decided there needed to be unity in the management and administration of the education system. Leading administrators worked to abolish the inequality of the system, and to bring the curriculum up to date with the most relevant material for Thai students.
The third wave of reform began in 1997 and came to a close recently in 2010. It has been the most complex and extensive reform period thus far, and has called for a number of changes: it guaranteed government-provided education for 12 years. Many universities became autonomous institutions. The system became decentralized, breaking into 175 different local education service areas. Standards were implemented to award teacher licenses.
During this period education was heavily restructured into three basic levels: one, two and three. Level One is optional. It consists of kindergarten education for children between the ages of 3 and 5. Three grades are included in the program as a whole: KG1-KG3. Level Two begins primary education, and the first years of required schooling for Thai children. This level consists of six years: P1-P6. Level Three is secondary education, and includes M1-M6. Not all six grades are required; a student need only finish M1-M3. The end of each year requires children to take a test in order to advance to the next level of education.
Despite these reforms, Thai leaders and researchers still acknowledge major problems with education. The main issue is with the quality – end of the year tests, called O-NETs, reveal poor performance in key areas like English and math. Inequality among students also remains a serious issue despite the second-wave reform efforts of the 1970s. In the northeast of Thailand, students have less ability to access the free education provided by the government: only 46 percent of students are able to attend school at the first level. Attendance in required primary education lags 15 percent behind Thailand’s eastern region, which has the highest level of school accessibility.
It is clear that Thailand greatly values its system of education. Its significance in the traditional Thai culture of Buddhist monks and its prominent place in Thai political history reveal as much. But Thailand has more education reform to accomplish before it can give its students the kind of education it so deeply wishes them to have.
– Rachel Davis