Thailand aims to improve previous reforms to its education system


Thailand’s educational system has a fairly well evolved curriculum, having gone through three major rounds of reform in recent decades, and it is generally regarded as sound. Analyses by UNESCO and others suggest that in terms of approach and theory, it is very much the same as the curricula utilised in Asian nations with highly successful educational systems.

Despite having the essentials in order, Thailand underperforms in terms of student achievement and other measures of effective schooling. The curriculum is seen as partly responsible. Beyond the broad brush strokes, it is both incomplete and at the same time weakened by over development in certain key areas.

As the country looks towards improving its education system, it will naturally consider further refining the nationwide curriculum. Observers say that this makes sense; the curriculum could not benefit from an updating but also systematic care and attention. They add, however, that the authorities should be careful not to go overboard. The temptation will be to issue an entirely new curriculum with the aim of improving outcomes. Instead, it has been argued that this sort of wholesale overhaul is the wrong approach. The basics are all in place and not much would be accomplished from yet another iteration. Instead of a full rewrite, experts and observers advise Thailand to focus on implementation and the quality of human resources. SINCE THE 1960s: Historically, curriculum reform was undertaken in Thailand in a haphazard fashion. Changes were recommended over the years by committees to address specific problems found at various class levels. No overarching theory guided the state’s approach. No model was followed. The first systematic and comprehensive curriculum reform occurred in 1960, and targeted the elementary level. Soon thereafter, international trends started to influence the process. A sense was building globally that a strong curriculum was essential for national development, and Thailand joined the drive towards upgrading the relevant documents.

In light of the new thinking on the subject, an institutional structure was established to drive the process. The Curriculum Development Division was formed within the Ministry of Education in 1972. It became the Curriculum Development Centre in 1975, and the first modern curriculum reform was undertaken in 1978-79. It was designed to address persistent weaknesses in the system that existed to that point.

The authorities found schooling in Thailand to be wasteful, characterised by considerable repetition and ineffectiveness. After completing basic education, many students were found to be functionally illiterate. Deficiencies in the basic structures and the assumptions guiding the sector were also identified. Materials were found to be too theoretical, too teacher-centric and inappropriate for students seeking to leave school and gain employment.

A wide range of changes were made. Under the 1978 reform, a 6-3-3 system so-called because of the number of years spent in primary, lower-secondary and upper-secondary school was introduced, a change from the existing 7-3-2. Five major subject groups were mandated, including basic skills, life experience, character development, work education and extra instruction in English. Classes were designed to be less esoteric, more relevant and ultimately more practical, while the role of the teacher was substantially altered. More freedom to adapt classes to local conditions was approved. The changes, which were fundamental and in some cases significant, were implemented under the National Education Scheme 1977 and put into place over a six-year period through 1983.

2001 Reforms

Another round of substantial curriculum reform came two decades later. It was implemented in 2001 following the passing of the National Education Act of 1999. This time, the fundamental theory underpinning education was significantly changed. Rather than setting out content-based guidelines, the new curriculum established standards. While the thinking behind the changes made was widely accepted and considered sound, implementation was poor. The reform was supported by weak documentation for such a significant transformation and advice to the teachers was limited. The result was mass confusion that was only made worse by simultaneous efforts to decentralise education in the country.

Another Round

The 2001 initiative was followed very quickly by another round of reform in 2008. This time, significantly more detail was offered than in the previous iteration. The educators received clear, active instructions to guide them in how exactly to implement standards-based education. More information was provided about how the various components of the curriculum work together. Many of the gaps that weakened the 2001 document were filled. The 2008 curriculum gets high marks from UNESCO. The organisation believes that it compares favourably with the curricula in countries like Singapore and South Korea, overall providing the right balance between standards and teacher autonomy.

Despite getting the fundamentals right, a number of deficiencies have been identified in the document. It is a significant improvement over the 2001 effort, but still seen as problematic. The 2008 document is vague where it should be more specific. It does not provide guidance, for example, on how education can be adjusted to meet the needs of some categories of students, such as those who are particularly advanced for their age or those who are falling behind.

Observers argue that the curriculum is lacking in terms of explaining the theoretical basis for the curriculum. As the transition from a centralised, didactic system to a standards-based system that takes into account local interests is a significant shift, it is crucial that teachers understand the thinking behind the new methods. The document provides some broad guidance on the underlying principles, but the framework is considered sparse given the scale of the transformation. At the same time, UNESCO finds that where a high quantity of guidance is provided in the document, it sometimes becomes self-defeating in practice. The granularity is counterproductive.

When an excess of direction is provided, the schooling tends to revert from being standards-based and back to being more content-based, the very opposite of what the authorities were attempting to achieve. Teachers have interpreted some of the requirements set down as encouraging them to move away from student-centred education.

UNESCO noted some other failures of the 2008 curriculum. While the document works to encourage the decentralisation process, in practice it does not provide for a high enough degree of local decision making. And while it calls for helping the students to develop skills for the workplace, what is taught does not always clearly match what is needed in the economy. Critics note that overall the authorities may have underestimated the challenges of what they set out to do.


Since the 2008 curriculum, additional reviews have been undertaken and a large-scale shift appears to be under consideration. Now, the push is away from standards-based education and towards outcomes-based education. While little detail has been offered about the changes, and discussion has been limited, so far some basic elements of the reform have been mentioned. The new programme will involve 10 generic skills, six values, six learning experiences and six key learning areas, according to UNESCO. It will measure outcomes both in terms of knowledge and skills and involve the use of a data management system.

UNESCO made a number of recommendations. It has called for an immediate, comprehensive and evidence-based review of the 2008 curriculum, noting with concern the lack of any reviews in recent years. Constant attention is needed if the country is to ensure that schooling is sufficiently up to date and of a high enough quality. UNESCO also advises that the current document should be rewritten so the directions are clearer, the grounding philosophy better explained and the emphasis shifted so that the curriculum is more focused on 21st century competencies.

Training and professional learning are seen as essential if the goals of the 2008 document are to be achieved. Importantly, UNESCO has called for the country to build a feedback mechanism into the system so the authorities can gauge the progress being made. At present, the criteria for evaluation are vague. Finally, the organisation says that any new reforms should be implemented in an inclusive and consultative manner.

Observers advise against the publication of an entirely new curriculum. It is all too common for countries that are disappointed with educational achievements to issue another long document filled with the right policies and ideas but no more effective than the last. It is better to simply set a manageable number of clear goals and work at achieving them. At present, the existing curriculum covers all the bases. Another round is not needed. Rather, it has been suggested that the country focus on the mechanics of its implementation.


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The Report: Thailand 2017

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