Is it true that the quality of Thai education is the worst among Asean countries? Pavich Thongroj, adviser to the education minister plunged the country into gloom earlier this week when he said Thailand’s education ranks last after Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Mr Pavich said he got the figures from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. It turned out that the ranking comes from an opinion survey of Thais that asked how well the education system met the needs for a competitive economy.
As for the ranking on higher education and training among Asean countries, Thailand is ranked 4th after Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, followed by the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia.
To put the record straight, it’s not true that Thai education is the worst in Asean. What’s true is that our education system is in an appalling state, which has been confirmed repeatedly by both domestic and international findings. So much so that parents have lost hope in the system.
This is a shame. Thailand’s education budget, about 20% of the national budget, is proportionately among the highest in the region and the world. Yet, the majority of students consistently fail national tests, from primary to high school levels. A few years ago, teachers sat the same exams as their students. The teachers failed too.
In the internationally famous Pisa test, which assessed 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science in 2009, Thailand was ranked among the poorest performers in the bottom 25%. As for English proficiency, Thailand is among the countries with the lowest proficiency scores in a study by EF Education First, a global language training company.
To be fair, Thailand must be credited for making universal education accessible to nearly all children in the country as well as in bridging the gender gap in education. But this is not good enough.
The sole focus on academic excellence based on rote learning results in a high level of drop-outs. The lack of quality vocational education punishes children who are not academically inclined with low self-esteem, pushes them into anti-social behaviour, and robs the industry sector of much-needed skilled workers and technicians.
Meanwhile, the centralised, pro-Bangkok curriculum destroys youngsters’ respect for their cultural roots. The emphasis on university education also favours rich kids who can afford expensive tutoring. In short, the education system ends up perpetuating inequality rather than bridging it.
Worse, the authoritarian and militaristic culture that runs through kindergarten to university levels has effectively destroyed creativity and rendered Thai children uncompetitive in a world driven by innovation.
The Pheu Thai-led government believes its one-child, one-tablet policy can launch Thai students into the digital era. Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng also believes a curriculum revamp will do the trick. It won’t.
Make the schools and teachers accountable for their students’ performances, advises the Thailand Development Research Institute. Allow the locals to run the schools and design their own curricula, demands the community schools network.
These calls have fallen on deaf ears. Thailand definitely needs education reform. But it won’t happen until the Education Ministry lets go of central control.
First published in Bangkok Post, 6 September 2013.