Exclusive: Thailand’s plan to fight inequality in education

By Varissara Charassangsomboon

Minister of Education Dr. Teerakiat Jareonsettasin discusses plans to use AI and tackle corruption.

Siam Square, a famous shopping area in central Bangkok, is always bustling with activity—not as much from tourists and shoppers as from students attending the various cram schools designed to help get them into the nation’s best schools and universities. The popularity of these institutions suggests a lack of confidence in the average schools’ ability to prepare students.

Like many developing countries, Thailand faces large inequity between elite and local schools. This year, Thailand placed 5th at the International Mathematics Olympiad, where students from the country’s best performing high schools took part. This result is a stark contrast to its rank of 54th in maths in the Pisa assessment, which evaluates 15-year-olds across the country.

The country’s Minister of Education, Dr. Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, is zooming in on inequality. His vision is “very simple”, he tells GovInsider. “I’d like that the parents do not need to worry when they send their kids to school, that our schools will be equally good.”

He discusses Thailand's plans to use artificial intelligence, clamp down on corruption, and improve teacher recruitment.

English with AI

The Minister wants to improve Thailand’s English proficiency, with plans to use artificial intelligence to assess students’ speaking and writing skills. According to the EF English Proficiency Index, Thailand has “low” English proficiency and ranks in the bottom six in Asia.

The country does not currently have an official assessment for English speaking and writing in schools, and lacks the native speakers needed to do conduct these assessments, the Minister says. “When you examine speaking and writing, usually you would need native speakers. You cannot have native speakers assess this for 10 million students.” According to a survey by the Ministry, only six Thai English-language teachers out of more than 43,000 in public schools across the country have native-like fluency.

The Ministry of Education is working with the British Council and Chulalongkorn University’s Computer Engineering Department to develop an AI capable of evaluating students’ speaking and writing ability online.

In the meantime, Thailand has launched a free mobile app - Echo English - that encourages people to practice conversational English through games. It hopes that the app will help improve Thais’ English proficiency, and in turn global competitiveness. The Ministry is currently developing versions designed for students and specific professions.

Tackling corruption

Tackling corruption is a priority for the Minister to ensure that money doesn’t leak through the system and is spent on the right infrastructure. “The corruption is quite rampant,” he says. “But the Ministry of Education is serious about cracking down on corruption.”
“The corruption is quite rampant.”
The new administration has changed procurement policies, such as for internet access, in an attempt to reduce corruption within the bureau. Instead of having a centralised internet provider, the Ministry allows individual schools to choose their own providers. “I am only spending a fourth of the budget that was previously allocated to the internet provision,” Minister Teerakiat adds.

Thailand’s edtech projects have been particularly vulnerable to widescale mismanagement in the past. An election promise to deliver ‘one tablet per child’ during the previous administration was scrapped after delays in supplier deliveries. The government had promised to buy 1.6 million tablets worth 4.611 billion baht (US$141 million).

Other countries in the region have used technology to improve transparency in tracking education budgets. In the Philippines, the CheckMySchool initiative is building an app for provide schools across the country to submit complaints. The app will provide them with information on how to get access to funding for new infrastructure and advise them on how to resolve complaints with the central government.

Thailand’s Education Minister believes the country needs to better educate people on the adverse effects of corruption and instill in students a respect for the law. It has had short-lived anti-corruption campaigns in schools before, but the Minister hopes to bring the topic front and centre by integrating it into the main nationwide curriculum, rather than provide it as an extra-curricular subject.

A previous anti-corruption campaign by the Bangkok Metropolitan Government and non-profit Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, Transparency Thailand targeted children aged six to eight years old. The campaign provided children’s books, songs, videos, art activities, games and plays that taught values of honesty and accountability.

Training teachers

The quality of teachers, especially at low-performing schools, represents a big issue for Thailand. Teachers get to choose their own placements, and not many want to work in disadvantaged schools. Instead, the best teachers typically end up at the best schools. “At the moment, it depends on the goodwill of teachers,” Minister Jareonsettasin says.

He believes that “the best investment is to get the best teachers to teach the lowest performing students”. The government needs to improve training for teachers in these schools too, he adds, and has restructured its training system to make courses within reach of more teachers.

In the past, trainings were centralised with only teachers from very few schools—generally urban—getting access. Now, the Ministry hopes to tackle this by making registration for teacher training courses available online. The training itself is still conducted face-to-face, but the Ministry aims to eventually provide online training as well.

The government annually provides every teacher with 10,000 baht (US$300) worth of training credits, which they can use to register. It is working with private agencies and universities around the country to provide a wider variety of courses in more places, making them accessible to more teachers. So far, about 700 courses around the country have been approved.

The new system not only empowers teachers but also creates competition that pushes training providers to constantly improve. Within two weeks, 320,000 out of the country’s 400,000 public school teachers enrolled in the system. “On certain days we have 20 million hits per day,” the Minister says.

These changes will take years to bear fruit. In the meantime, hundreds will continue to fork out extra tuition fees to attend cram schools. But the Minister is hopeful: “we are still far from the real goals, but we’re moving in the right direction.”