Removing oppressive school rules

School uniform and hairstyle rules are part and parcel of Thailand’s education.Three years ago, groups that called themselves “progressive students” started to challenge the stiff rules, calling for the state to respect their rights to make their own decisions.

The staunch campaign caused the Ministry of Education (MOE) to ease its rules on hairstyles, allowing students to wear longer hair. But it maintains the rules on uniforms. On Feb 2, the Ministry of Education finally permitted schools to adopt their own rules on student hairstyles. Some schools earned praise for giving the students freedom and setting a good example of child rights protection. However, the abolition of rigid regulations is not without concerns.

To begin with, even though the ministry introduced a more flexible policy on hairstyles, while encouraging each school to consult with concerned parties, the line of communication is unclear. In particular, the fact that the education ministry has yet to issue written guidelines on the matter has left several schools unsure if and how they should translate it into practice. Not to mention concerns over the additional burden as well as wasting time, should the ministry later on roll out detailed guidelines that conflict with rules schools have set for themselves.

Besides, granting schools complete authority on the matter could induce a backlash given the fact that there is no guarantee of student freedom. Instead, some schools may adopt tougher rules, especially when parties in the consultative process, as suggested in the guidelines, do not include students. In addition, the term “appropriateness” to be used by those having a say is subjective, depending on their personal views, values as well as beliefs that may not be rational. There might be cases where students’ aspirations for freedom are not duly respected.

Respecting the rights of a child conforms to the noble principle that every person has the right and freedom to do anything that does not violate other people’s rights. In fact, this principle is a basis for a number of international laws that Thailand is a party to. In principle, students should have the right to choose hairstyles and clothes as long as their choices do not infringe upon other people’s rights.

While the country’s constitution endorses human rights, at the same time, there are quite a few laws that curb people’s freedom as long as such restrictions do not compromise a person’s dignity as a human or they are enforced with excessiveness. By doing so, the Ministry of Education issued uniform and hairstyle rules and imposed penalties with the intention of enhancing discipline among the youth.

Indeed, discipline is a key rule for peaceful coexistence in society. However, regulations of this type have at least two major problems.

First, most regulations issued by the Ministry of Education are inflexible and fail to acknowledge the diverse aspirations of students. For instance, uniform regulations do not recognise diverse gender identities. Those wishing to dress in conformity to their gender identity have to seek permission from the school administration.

At the same time, schools that want more flexible rules need to negotiate with the powers-that-be. Such a practice could discriminate against diversity if those involved have little awareness of human rights.

Another problem is that mandatory uniform and hairstyle rules with punishment may have little to do with discipline, as previously believed by some people. Good discipline should be a result of students taking the trial-and-error process under a teacher’s guidance. Mandatory restrictions, on the contrary, are not useful as they deprive students of a chance to learn from and value that trial-and-error process. Restrictions may backfire as tough penalties may lead to resistance.

There are three primary actions that could be taken in order to achieve noble goals. Firstly, the Ministry of Education should revamp the existing rules so as to enable schools to adopt uniform and hairstyle codes without the need to ask for permission.

Secondly, it must ensure that students have access to the decision-making process on uniform and hairstyle codes. The ministry may provide support by enhancing understanding of what it might consider to be ideal guidelines. It should also make it clear where forced restrictions are off-limits. Such practices might go some way towards preventing those with extreme views from crossing the line.

At the same time, schools should be open to courting student opinions and incorporating them in the consultation process or start by setting up a student group or panel comprising student representatives. Students’ views and recommendations should go to the school committee and be posted in the school’s conventional information and IT channels.

Finally, the ministry must be tough on those who violate students’ rights. It should install a case follow-up system and hold accountable schools that excessively punish students who refuse to comply with uniform and hairstyle codes. It should provide students, parents, and teachers with information regarding child rights and rights protection like those prepared by the Thai Lawyers on Human Rights.

Rules and regulations are still necessary as guidelines for those involved and also as a norm for instilling discipline in students. But all must be done to ensure that rights, freedom, and human dignity are not compromised, and that means involving students as key stakeholders with a right to participate in  the decisionmaking process.

Article by Thunhavich Thitiratsakul and Nattawut Permjit

Thunhavich Thitiratsakul and Nattawut Permjit are researchers at the Thailand Development and Research Institute. Policy analyses from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.The ministry’s rules are inflexible and fail to acknowledge the diverse aspirations of students.

first published: Bangkok Post Apr 26, 2023

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