Poor education ranking down to uncaring adults
International surveys expose weakness of Thailand’s politicised system
A new international education survey inevitably prompts the powers-that-be in Thailand to complain about school standards in the country. As such, the current round of ministerial moaning over how Thai students fared in the latest Southeast Asian rankings is not surprising. But neither is it encouraging: paying knee-jerk “seasonal” attention to Thai education is the last thing we need.
Thailand received disappointingly low scores and ranking in the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). While Singapore topped both the PISA and TIMSS tables, students in Vietnam – regarded as a developing country – fared better than their counterparts in wealthier Thailand.
Acting Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin admitted that Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha and the ministry were unhappy. But while the scores and rankings are nothing to be proud of, improvement of Thai education won’t come through dismayed reactions each time international surveys are announced.
In Thailand, the issue of education is often little more than a matter of “face”. When the adults lose face because Thai kids score poorly in international terms, fingers are pointed and solutions are sought. Politics then becomes the enemy, with education policy focused on short-term measures designed by politicians seeking re-election or other selfish reward.
One classic demonstration of how the country’s education has been a hostage to political expediency came when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra addressed a group of die-hard followers in the United States recently. He lambasted the economic policies of the current Thai government and deplored the lack of progress in the education system, but conveniently omitted to mention that the education portfolio was treated with disdain when he was head of government.
Thaksin used a slew of education ministers, most of them unqualified for the job. But he is not the only one to blame. Thai politicians have always paid lip service to the importance of education, only to scramble clear of the portfolio itself, which is not considered a “major” ministerial position. Any reshuffle at the ministry takes place not with a motive to improve education, but because of “political necessities” elsewhere, like the need to pacify rebellious MPs whose demands for “rewards” are destabilising the government.
Education development requires long-term planning, patience and sacrifices. Most of all, it must not be politicised. A worthy policy implemented today may only bear fruit 10 years from now, meaning somebody else will likely get the credit. A good approach launched today may see Thai students winning international contests a decade hence, when another party will probably be in government.
Thai leaders must stop seeing education as a political or image-building tool. Winning international contests might make headlines, but the state of national education is not gauged by a handful of its brightest students. Boosting the quality of education for millions of children in rural areas would be of more benefit than any number of triumphs by Thai kids at international contests.
In contrast, the ranking system is certainly a useful measure of the quality of Thai education. But the urge to climb the ladder must not be tied to individual policymakers’ desire for credit. Every policy and every measure must be carried out with the students’ interests in mind. That sounds so simple, but, in Thailand, it’s a lot easier said than done.