The fight against Thailand’s archaic and militaristic education system
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The fight against Thailand’s archaic and militaristic education system

We have previously highlighted the dismal state of Thailand’s education system and have explored the various reasons for its failures: from ridiculous questions being asked in the annual O-Net tests, questionable standardization of these tests, to poor PISA scoreshorrendous English-language training and thus proficiency or virtually non-existent sexual education. There are a lot of problems that don’t bode well for the present but also for the (near-)future of the country economically, or culturally.

Previous governments have only thrown more money at the problem and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, while promising after her election victory in 2011 to shift the focus to “life-long learning”, has made little progress. Her administration’s best known education policy so far has been handing out free tablet PCs. A nice touch, but the problems run much deeper.

The New York Times recently ran a story pointing to the root cause of Thailand’s flagging education system:

Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.

At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code.

(…) a system that stresses unquestioned obedience.

In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

This hard discipline is also seen in the learning methods: rote learning and repetitious memorization is still widespread in Thai classrooms.

Another apparent factor is the enforced uniformity of Thai students: apart from the uniforms – Thailand is one of very few countries worldwide that requires even university students to wear uniforms – Thai schoolchildren have strict guidelines of hair cuts (boys have to wear a crew cut, girls can’t grow their hair longer than the neckline and dyeing is absolutely prohibited) from very early on.

But this archaic regulation (dating back to 1972 during the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn) is undergoing a change since earlier this year as the Education Ministry is proposing to relax these rules following a recommendation by the National Human Rights Commission, (NHRC) as we have previously reported and commented:

Hair on Thai school children’s heads has become a national policy issue. The student hair debate has been simmering and finally came to a boil after a schoolboy filed a complaint with the NHRC in December 2011. The complaint said that the school regulation prohibiting all hairstyles except the crew cut for boys and ear-lobe-length bob for girls is in violation of children’s human rights and that the schools allowing selected students such as those engaged in classical art performances to wear long hair is discrimination against other students subject to the hair rule. (…)

Since the student’s complaint to the NHRC in 2011 made the news, academics, policy makers, government officials and leading thinkers have weighed in with both pros and cons. The larger public recently jumped into the fray following the NHRC ruling in November 2012 and the decision by the education ministry just before Children’s Day. (…)

Perhaps these people are oblivious to the new reality that Thailand is in the midst of change – more young Thais are now getting a taste of questioning and blind obedience can no longer be taken for granted. Today’s Thai youth are rushing headlong into the 21st century, only to be pulled back by the hair – so to speak – by arcane rules. However, at least some Thai grown-ups are beginning to appreciate the children’s frustration. But enough to set them free?

Thailand: What has hair got to do with children’s rights?“, by Kaewmala/Siam Voices, Asian Correspondent, January 13, 2013

The aforementioned New York Times article also highlights another campaign to modernize education:

Late last year, a freethinking Thai high school student, Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan, who goes by the nickname Frank, started a Facebook campaign calling for the abolition of the “mechanistic” education system. Together with like-minded friends, he started a group called the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance. He rose to national prominence in January after speaking out on a prime-time television program.

“School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” he said one recent morning at his school, Nawaminthrachinuthit Triam Udomsuksa Pattanakarn, (…) Frank described the teachers there as “dictators” who order students to “bow, bow, bow” and never to contradict them.

In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

Indeed there is now growing resistance to the status quo in the classroom and, surprisingly enough, this has found an unlikely ally in current Education Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana – at least according to the New York Times reporter. But at least a few changes are being implemented. For example, the number of school hours will be timmed from 1,000-1,200 to 800 hours per year, in line with UNESCO recommendations.

But there needs to be a lot more to be done, such as the lack of reading reading culture – despite Bangkok being named World Book Capital 2013; the problem of corruption for school admissions; the plan to close down smaller schools; and the abusive culture of rite-of-passage rituals among first-year university students. All these and much more need a thorough overhaul, not only to the curriculum but also to the attitudes towards teaching and preparing our children for a future where they lead, not follow.

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.