After just one year, the Pheu Thai government's "one tablet per child" policy has hit a major hurdle. The first semester of the school year has already finished, but Prathom 1 and Mathayom 1 students across the country still have not received their tablet PCs.
Might it be be considered to be a major problem for a free tablet PC programme when there are no tablets to give away to start with?
The problem is not about money. The Education Ministry is shored up with 5 billion baht to pay for 1.8 million tablets for Prathom 1 and Mathayom 1 students nationwide. Education bigwigs blame the problem on crazy bureaucratic red tape for causing the electronic auction delay.
To get around the procurement glitches and the distribution headaches, education vice-minister Kitti Limsakul last week floated the idea of giving the students 3,000-baht coupons each to buy the tablets themselves.
His idea was welcomed by the tablet businesses for obvious reasons.
Why give only one company the opportunity to cash in on the tablet bonanza when the budget pie can be shared with many other companies? Many parents also welcomed the cash coupon idea because they can top it up to buy better products for their children.
Still, many disagree with the coupon idea. To start with, many parents may not know how to choose the right products. It puts too much of a burden on those in remote areas.
Many parents may also sell the coupons for cash and use it for something else. Mr Kitti's idea ground to a halt when Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng vetoed it, saying the cash coupon solution will only widen the disparity between rich and poor students.
Minister Chaturon may be right on this. But he is dead wrong in blaming the tablet purchase and distribution delays on red tape. In fact, the real culprit is the Education Ministry itself. The Education Ministry's central control, to be more precise.
As we see the quality of Thai education taking a deep plunge and lagging behind most of our neighbouring countries _ as attested by various proficiency tests domestically and internationally _ what the education authorities should do first and foremost is to identify what is wrong with the system and fix it.
Rote-learning. Schools' culture of militarism. A centralised curriculum irrelevant to local realities. The one-size-fits-all education system that punishes creativity and individual growth. The lack of accountability among teachers and administrators for poor performance. The obsession with tutoring that favours students from well-to-do families. The neglect for occupational education which hurts the economy. The large gaps in schools' quality. The tea money for school places. The list goes on and on. All of these ills that are plaguing the education system, however, are derived from the same source _ the Education Ministry's centralised, top-down policy that forces every child from diverse localities, cultures, and with different needs to learn the same thing under a uniform, oppressive system.
The tablet policy stems from central control that prevents local decisions on what education technology and contents are deemed most suitable for children's needs. And how the learning should be done to help the youngsters realise their full potential. Without decentralisation of education, the tablet glitches and other education woes will persist. Education reform will also remain elusive as long as the Education Ministry refuses to loosen its top-down, centralised power grip.