Thai schoolchildren perform abysmally on international test results. And public figures across the kingdom’s political spectrum — from hardcore leftists to devout royalists — have said reforms to the education system should be top of the nation’s agenda.

But many Thais only realised something deeper was amiss with their schools during the youth democracy protests of 2020, when the “Bad Students” entered the stage.

This irreverently named protest group, composed of teenage and pre-teen children, staged some of the most eye-catching demonstrations of the country’s half-year of protests. As Thais gathered in their tens of thousands to ask rarely voiced questions about the political order, their rebellious children protested over the content of their lessons, their schools’ strict rules on uniforms and haircuts, and an authoritarian pedagogical culture.

All of this, they said, stifled creativity — and did little to prepare them for the digital age.

To get their message across, the pupils marched to Thailand’s education ministry in their school uniforms, wearing white ribbons — a symbol of protest — in their hair or on their satchels. They raised three fingers during morning flag-raising ceremonies, the defiant salute of the child warriors of The Hunger Games — a shocking show of impudence in a culture that demands young people show respect.

At one protest outside the ministry in September, when the then education minister Nataphol Teepsuwan came out to address them, the students forced him to wait his turn to speak, a cheeky upending of Thailand’s deeply ingrained hierarchy of seniority.

“The critique by students is that schools are giving the things they don’t need, but not giving them the things they need,” says Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, a researcher at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, who interviewed about 300 high school and university students during the protests. “Many reflected that the teaching in school made them feel like robots working in an assembly line — but, in the future, this kind of industry will decline.”

Problems in education get to the heart of what reformist Thais argue is ailing the nation. They say a hierarchical culture that has the Palace at the top is reflected in a government and parliament currently under military control — so it is natural that authoritarian methods and a top-down culture prevail in schools.

But some say that there is more than just school culture at stake, right now.

Thailand already had one of south-east Asia’s slowest-growing economies before the Covid-19 pandemic exposed its dependence on low-skilled jobs in tourism and other services. So, analysts suggest that schools must now step up and train the kinds of graduates that 21st century workplaces demand and help attract a bigger share of foreign investment.

Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s Thai government, ahead of the crisis, had spoken of creating a digital, innovation-based “Thailand 4.0”. But the Bad Students delivered a scathing critique of a system they claim devotes more attention to their haircuts than preparing them for the future.

“The ‘White Ribbon Generation’ realised they have to be creative, innovative, ask more questions,” says Kanokrat. “They have to be different to survive in this disruptive economy.”

In the two decades since Thailand’s schools began participating in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests, national scores have been low and falling. In 2018, the most time the three-yearly tests were run, Thailand’s 15 years olds were ranked 57th in maths, 53rd in science, and 66th in reading out of 78 countries taking part. The most advantaged students outperformed their disadvantaged counterparts in all three subjects.

Thailand’s challenges are similar to those seen in many other countries: individual schools perform irregularly, and the better schools located in cities and provincial centres tend to attract bigger budgets, more students, and more teachers. Peripheral schools usually lose out.

In a country marked by regular military coups and unrest, political instability also plays a role, as ministers change frequently (Nataphol, the education minister, was dismissed this year after being convicted for his part in street demonstrations that led to the 2014 military coup, and a new minister, Trinuch Thienthong, took charge earlier this year).

“It’s very hard to have a stable direction of how to improve, as the policies keep changing,” says Nicha Pittayapongsakorn, senior researcher with the Thailand Development Research Institute. “Maybe this new minister will come up with new ideas, and people try to implement it, then he is out again and a new policy comes next year. It’s not very good for the motivation of staff and teachers.”

However, for Thailand there are some glimmers of hope. An “education sandbox” has been implemented in eight areas of the country, whereby schools are given more autonomy and lighter-touch regulation — enabling them to experiment with their own reforms.

“It’s still a work in progress, but there’s a law to support it,” Nicha says.