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Education Reform: In Thailand Principals Are “Black Box” between National Policymaking and Kids in the Classroom

January 25, 2023

By Rattana Lao

Since the National Education Act of 1999, concepts such as school autonomy, decentralization, and student-centered learning have been promoted as core principles of Thai education reform. But despite the national rhetoric, Thailand has struggled to find the political will and the financial resources to keep its reform commitments. Educational inequality is still rampant, the education system remains highly centralized, and schools still rely on intensive rote learning.

The Asia Foundation believes that education reform will help Thailand avoid the Middle Income Trap. More flexible, autonomous, and decentralized schools would better serve Thai students and the country’s development. With support from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affair’s and Trade, the Foundation is working with policymakers, principals, and educators to advance the national conversation on the importance of education reform in Thailand.

To translate these national goals into functional school reforms, principals have a pivotal role to play. Principals are the “black box” between national policymaking and what happens in the classroom. Successful principals are able to turn education policy into actual curriculum that serves the needs of students.

Principals like these are known as “instructional leaders.” According to Professor Philip Hallinger, an expert on instructional leadership and a policy advisor to the Foundation’s education program, the theoretical movement toward instructional leadership began in the early 1980s in the United States. Forty years later, he has written, “the expectation for school principals to be ‘instructional leaders’ has become ubiquitous throughout much of the world.”

Instructional leadership achieves its effects by setting a direction for the school, organizing the learning environment, and cultivating high-quality teaching and learning. Instructional leaders shape the school culture, organize the work of the school, monitor student progress, and make adjustments to foster success. Instructional leaders put students’ learning needs at the center of educational goals.

The Foundation’s education program conducted nationwide research in Thailand to better understand the complex interplay between instructional leadership and student success. The study was particularly interested in understanding the factors that discourage instructional leadership. The report, The Challenges in Delivering Quality Education in Thailand: Rules, Resources, and Leadership, found that burdensome administrative structures, legal uncertainties, lack of resources, and confusion about the nature of leadership are still frustrating education reform in Thailand.

Since the publication of the report, the Foundation has worked with partners MCOT HD Television, the Ministry of Education, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, and the Ananda Mahidol Foundation to launch a campaign called Good Schools Are Everywhere. The campaign searched for model schools around the country where the principals exemplify instructional leadership, and produced educational documentaries about successful school leaders, which were televised on Sundays in prime time.

Exemplary school principals in Thailand who participated in the Foundation’s Good Schools Are Everywhere campaign. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Our experience pushed us to rethink the role of school principals. To bring the voices of students themselves into this conversation, the Foundation and its partners the Australian Embassy and the Association for Thai Language Teachers of Thailand held a national student essay contest to describe the ideal principal. In 3,300 nationwide submissions, five main themes emerged clearly from the students’ voices.

(1) Students see principals as equivalent to their parents, and they see schools as “second homes.”

Writers frequently compared a principal’s leadership to parental love, care, and understanding. Students want their principal to be kind, and they want principals to make them feel safe, like mothers looking after their children. Many students characterized principals and teachers as second parents. This finding is idiosyncratically Thai.

(2) Students want their principals to spend more time at school.

Students said they admire principals who stand at the school gates to greet them in the morning, who attend morning choir, and who do walkabouts during the school day. Students want principals to spend more time improving the schools, they want principals with good management skills, and they admire principals who come to work early and are a presence throughout the day.

(3) A principal must be a visionary and an exemplary teacher—a “captain.”

Students think of principals as “leaders of teachers.” They wrote that they want them to “lead by example.” Students want smart, well-rounded principals with a long-term perspective on their school’s development to provide guidance and mentorship to teachers and students. They think of the ideal principal as patient, hardworking, and disciplined.

Principals are like captains that guide the ship without being distracted. The captain must pilot the ship safely to the destination. (Pitchya Sapew, Bann Pang Pittiyakom School)

(4) The ideal principal creates new learning opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom.

Students are hungry for sports, music, and extracurricular activities. They want the chance to try new things and new activities. Students want principals to find opportunities abroad or in other provinces for learning that is more than just academic training. This hunger for new opportunity is evident throughout the essays.

Principals must support every kind of activity at school, whether it’s academics, sports, the arts, or something extracurricular. Principals must not use sarcasm or invidious language…, which discourage students from thinking and expressing their true interests and talents.… Students might not yet know what they want to become; therefore, principals must support everything that interests students. Not only will this be good for students, but it will create a quality school. (Wanwisa Suayhan, Khonkaen Nakorn School)

(5) Students want principals who stand up for fairness and justice. Principals must stop the bullying at schools.

Many essayists wrote of bullying at school. Students want principals to promote a school culture of respect, tolerance, and humanity. They also want principals who are fair and open-minded and listen to student points of view. Students want principals who are supportive and empowering, who have integrity, and who are committed to their schools.

My ideal principal is someone who is approachable and open-minded for students to talk to. The principal doesn’t have to be “modern” all the time, but needs to accept students’ differences and uniqueness regardless of their class, sexuality, or identity. Principals don’t have to listen to everybody on everything, but they have to be good listeners. (Manasnan Kandon, Sarakampittiyakom School)

Students want their leaders to respect the diversity of students on school grounds. They want equal treatment and respect when it comes to their sexuality, religion, race, and class. This is evident throughout the essays: students sing in unison that they want principals who respect their individuality and freedom. Students expect their principals to be just, to listen to their pleas and problems, and to respect differences of opinion. In a sense, a principal is viewed as an arbitrator of problems that arise in the school.

(Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The voices of students that emerge from these essays are loud and clear. They speak of an ideal principal who is a powerful person in their school and in their lives. There are many factors that prevent Thai principals from living up to these ideals. On the one hand, schools often lack the financial resources even for basic curriculum, let alone extensive extracurricular activities. On the other hand, principals climbing the career ladder face political demands that force them to spend time networking away from school grounds.

These themes provide an important perspective on the national conversation about education reform. Students want principals who are just, who are instructional leaders, who are a presiding presence in the school, and who create more spaces for educational exploration. The challenge now is for policymakers to turn these hopes into reality. How can the Thai government promote student-centered learning; how can the state create a regulatory framework that favors instructional leadership; and how can the school ecosystem nurture these leaders? They can begin by listening to these young voices.

The author would like to express sincere gratitude to the following research assistants: Worachan Neamsup, Suparat Jeensomsong, Manaswee Phromsuthirak, and Koko Tiamsai.

Rattana Lao is senior program officer for policy and research for The Asia Foundation in Thailand. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Thailand
Related topics: Education


  1. Thorough and insightful…. I hope there will be some solid tracking and followup – would love to see how this develops!
    Would also like some ‘boots on the ground’ reports (anonymously, I would understand) on schools that score highly – student outcomes? teacher satisfaction?

  2. Absolutely amazing article!!!

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