November 28, 2003
Seeing the educational world in Thailand

Thailand may not be a grain of sand exactly, but look at its education controversies, and you do see the entire educational world writ smaller.

From the Straits Times:

BANGKOK – At the heart of the rejection by King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a transition from a very conservative, typically Asian system of education to a globally competitive system.

The Bill sent back by the King contained several errors described as technical, with most arising out of confused terminology.

With the career paths of some 500,000 government teachers at stake, those technicalities could have turned out to be critical, which is why the Bill was rejected.

The administration has admitted its error, and the Bill has been killed. Legislators and their committees will go back to the drawing board when Parliament reopens after its three-month recess, which began this week.

While there was unnecessary haste, too little consultation, and overconfidence on the part of the ruling party in pushing through the Bill, there was no sinister intent.

The Bill was supposed to decentralise the system and restructure the work force – teachers – according to skills, competence and seniority. But 500,000 teachers constitute a substantial body of people, and many among them were district education officials worried that the proposed structure in the Bill made their jobs redundant.

Quite naturally, they lobbied the King in a petition against the Bill. Whether this had a bearing on the Palace's decision is something the public may never know.

The rejection of the Bill thus has no bearing on political stability, other than the fact that it is a loss of face for the government which has been shown up in this instance to be, at the least, mildly incompetent and, at the worst, overconfident and therefore sloppy, given its superior position in Parliament.

But the controversy is a reflection on the critical nature of the change being sought.

As in many countries, in Thailand's private schools, quality education is available to those who pay for it.

In the kingdom's public schools, the traditional teacher-disciple relationship is still very entrenched, with the teachers' authority unquestioned even on academic issues. This lack of debate does not breed creative competitiveness.

Also, in today's globalised world, working knowledge of English is an asset.

With the school system largely in Thai, English skills are rudimentary among many who go through the government system.

As noted by the Asian Development Bank in its report this year, the Thai education system lags behind that of others in the region, especially in science and an area crucial for national competitiveness – creative problem-solving.

And in an indication of the nature of the stakes, a mere three weeks ago Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra replaced his education minister with Adisai Bodhiramik, a former commerce minister who is considered more capable of pushing reform.

Same old story in other words, with only the usual Asian tweaks, to the effect that children pay too much attention to their teachers in state schools rather than too little, and that state schools are in trouble because they don't teach enough English. Otherwise: private success public failure, not enough science, concern about global competitiveness, entrenched teacher and bureaucratic interests and consequent political grief, despite a dominant governmental position politically, as this politician turns out to be better than that one at "pushing reform" – it's all familiar stuff.

I tried to pick out the best paragraphs of this story to illustrate the point about how familiar it will all seem to people thousands of miles away from Thailand, but it was all so relevant to this theme that I ended up copying and pasting the entire thing.

Do they use the word "initiative" in Thailand, I wonder?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:42 AM
Category: Politics