Thailand: Earmarking education reform

Looking to give the country’s education system a radical overhaul, Thailand’s newly appointed minister of education is looking to greater emphasise the use of technology and boost reforms to develop a knowledge-based economy.

Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech, who began his post after last month’s cabinet reshuffle, hopes the reforms will also help prepare Thailand for the next stage of ASEAN integration.

High on Thada-Thamrongvech’s list is speeding up plans to ensure students are allowed equal access to resources and funding. The minister also said he wants to see better use of technology in education, together with a greater emphasis on skills training and lifelong learning.

The minister’s far-reaching and at times controversial policies, which include a commitment to tackling corruption and changing the teacher appraisal system, were announced within days of the changes made by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to her six-month old cabinet.

The reforms have been greeted with scepticism by some critics who described them as short-term political ploys. In particular, news that the “New Breed” project aimed at promoting teaching as a profession could be axed was greeted with heavy criticism.

Thada-Thamrongvech responded by saying he disagreed with a provision requiring education students to train for an additional year before starting work. “Why would those smart students want to be teachers when they have a better chance to make much more money in other careers?” he asked members of the media.

He also hinted at a u-turn on a policy making spoken English in schools mandatory one day a week, telling the Bangkok Post on February 3 there was no place for initiatives “that seem to go against human nature and are impractical”.

The minister has, however, pledged to support a number of reforms that were already set in motion, such as the major Pheu Thai campaign named “One Tablet PC Per Child” which aims to ensure all students are given access to tablet computers. Distribution of the 900,000 tablet PCs brought from China to all 860,000 Prathom 1 students who have reached the age of six will begin in May.

Thailand’s education system is no stranger to targeted reforms, with politicians over the years making several attempts to drive through projects and programmes aimed at improving the sector. Not all of them have proved successful. One such example, the Lab School project, which spearheaded the introduction of computers and IT infrastructure into classrooms in rural areas, floundered due to financial constraints.

While it is generally recognised that reforms are needed, Thailand’s education sector has suffered the repercussions of a lack of continuity in both the education ministry and policy. In particular, enrolment rates at the country’s primary schools are giving cause for concern, with figures from the World Bank indicating Thailand lags behind its neighbours.

The most recent statistics available, for 2009, put the country’s gross primary school enrolment rates at 90.7% which is on a par with its lowest year on record of 1996. The figure also marks a drop of 8% on enrolment rates for 2004, which is Thailand’s top year on record. In contrast, enrolment rates for primary schools in East Asia and the Pacific region in 2009 reflected a trend witnessed across upper, middle-income countries which saw them remain for the most part above 110.1%.

Concern is now mounting that delays in addressing problems in Thailand’s education system could hinder its efforts to make the shift towards a knowledge-based economy and capitalise on ASEAN integration. The growing demand for a well-educated workforce around the region has heightened the need for reform, as countries worldwide are recognising the key role education policy with higher levels of value added will play in future economic development.

As calls grow for a greater emphasis to be placed on innovation and investment in research and development across schools and universities, Thada-Thamrongvech’s reforms come at an opportune time for further change in the sector.

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