In light of the unfortunate passing of His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand now faces an uncertain future. But one thing is reasonably certain - without wholesale changes in education policy, it might not be a better future!
It's an accepted view that a functioning education system is the key to the future prosperity of Thailand. It is also the top issue that the Thai public wants to see properly addressed. However, education (especially in rural areas) is not working. In fact, it really should be categorized as being in a state of emergency!
The massive and expensive investment that started at the end of the 1980s, that got more children in Thailand to show up to school, isn't paying academic dividends. Enrollment currently stands at about 80% which probably sounds low to any Westerner reading this. Actually, it's an extraordinary improvement and no mean feat considering the expansive geographical nature of Thailand and the lack of safe transport and local facilities.
The explosive rise of smaller Thai schools (less than 20 students per grade) has risen to about 20,000. But it seems that they are doing little more than warehousing students till they are old enough to leave. Small and remote schools are hindered by a chronic lack of qualified and competent teachers, useable materials, physical infrastructure and regulatory oversight.
Half of 15-year-old boys outside the largest Thai cities are functionally illiterate and perform at a level, two years lower than 15-year-old boys in Vietnam! It's a pickle, folks and something drastic and sensible has (yet?) to be done.
I've been teaching in different schools and businesses around Thailand for a long time and in my view, there are five important areas that need to be addressed immediately, to secure (or at least improve) the standing of Thai education for the next generation entering an uncertain future...
1 - Curriculum ad nauseum!
Get rid of the existing one - it's bloody awful. Don't improve it - abandon it! If anyone mentions 'O-Net', SHOOT THEM! Start again from the ground up.
The government should prioritize the implementation of a brand new 'common core curriculum' using updated and modern academic standards for the most important subjects... and then hold schools to account when these standards are not achieved. These curriculums must also be geared to work in areas of Thailand where Thai isn't spoken.
If local provinces are persuaded to teach more Thai language instruction during early years education, there is the obvious knock-on benefit of improving overall student achievements in the long term. This negligent attitude to cultural and linguistic differences contributes to the south of Thailand feeling alienated and at odds with mainstream national culture. And it also affects the north and other border areas, too.
2 - Better teacher training...
As part of the push to improve the curriculum, teachers have to want to teach it! They have to be capable of delivering the classes and also of ensuring that students are retaining what is being taught. School administrations must be given modern and ongoing resources to train their teachers to be able to deliver the goods in the classroom!
And of course, teachers have to be paid! The shortage of good teachers willing to stay in remote areas is a tragedy and you can't really blame them. One answer would be to pay teachers to train and require repayment in terms of service rather than crippling student loans. There are already lots of generous grants that the government makes available for university education. Surely these grants can be re-tooled to require volunteer teacher graduates to spend a year or two in schools that are in need of qualified talent?
3 - ...which brings me on to student assessment. (Grrr!)
Let's get real and stop this face-saving charade of passing every student regardless of their ability. Thailand's schools need to grow up and start to assess all students in an accurate, reliable and honest manner. It is only by doing this that students can be guided to the further education, careers and jobs that they are most suited to doing in the future.
I'm all for 'no child left behind', but this current state of affairs is just laughable! It doesn't help to motivate any students (even the good ones) when all of them pass the tests and exams, regardless of their input.
4 - Embracing education technology.
The adoption of decent educational technology is woefully inadequate and/or out of date. There's really no excuse for this. Every school and every teacher should have online access to all the lesson plans for every class in every subject. Every classroom (big or small) should be equipped with the facilities with which to teach and learn in an entertaining, appropriate and modern environment. Google provides an amazing wealth of tools for educators and schools and they're free! Why aren't schools using them?
Also, there should be official, national, online support groups for all Thai teachers which should be easy to access. They should be properly moderated to help teachers to do their jobs with confidence. It's easy for teachers to feel worn down, isolated and neglected when their schools are miles from the nearest toilet!
5 - Political decentralization.
Although the previous points take aim at the government to initiate improvements, it is the very centralization of government in education that handcuffs educators and holds schools back. The political stranglehold over education policy, funding and management has been a disaster. This is especially true in deprived areas. 'Top-down' political management needs to be re-thought out so that it works in favor of specific areas of Thailand and not just in favor of the schools within cheating distance of the capital.
It's not enough for students to simply show up to school. There needs to be a wholesale and radical change to the approach to education that makes it worth their while putting on a uniform each day rather than working in a rice field. Thai taxpayers are allowing billions of baht to be wasted, feeding a meaningless and ineffective machine of so-called 'reforms' that just aren't working.
The money is there... the will is there... but the lack of any visionary leadership is not. Thailand will continue to be bombarded with barmy ideas that frustrate parents, students, schools and teachers unless someone comes forward with the courage to admit failure and start afresh on a path of wholesale, realistic... and painful changes.