Testing times for students, education policy makers

Thai policy elites have always looked westward for the "perfect" answer to creating an education system here.

About 35,000 students sit for an exam in a bid to gain direct admission to Srinakharinwirot University. One of the challenges for education reform is the costly and competitive education system that favours the wealthy. THITI WANNAMONTHA

Thai education policy and the creation of modern schooling was founded on an attempt to introduce Westernised education and institutions in order to modernise the country.

Although the West - Europe and the US - have stood as the exemplars to indicate progress and success, the blurring boundaries of the nation state in the age of globalisation has also blurred the origins of most education reforms.

Professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi, of Columbia University's Teachers College, said the current education policy fads such as vouchers, lifelong learning and decentralisation have become so global that they have lost their origins.

Most policies have become "nobody's and everybody's reform", which makes it easier for other countries to grab.

Thai education reform is indeed a byproduct of these global policies being put together into one big box and wrapped under the name of the National Education Act of 1999 (revised in 2002).

Through interviews with senior policymakers involved in the lawmaking process and analyses of policy documents, our policymakers have done the world tour in order to "learn from the best practices" elsewhere.

From the United Kingdom to Australia, from Japan to New Zealand; educational policies from these places resonate in the Act.

In one interview, an advocate of the Act from the Office of Education Council argued: "We spent at least two years prior to the promulgation visiting numerous places and studying other systems in order to come up with the best educational law for Thailand." Really?

It is true that "learning from abroad" dominates the creation of education reform here. However, there are three fundamental problems to this approach.

Firstly, the logic of "learning from abroad" makes Thai education policy too sensitive, fatigued so to speak, to changes from elsewhere. This can lead to a couple of unintended consequences.

We keep introducing everything that everyone else is doing just to keep up with the latest trends. Undoubtedly this creates redundancy, disconnection and confusion. Metaphorically, the Thai education system is like a teenager trying to come of age. He or she keeps changing his or her style from K-Pop to British Vintage.

Secondly, the inclusion of everyone else's policy into one package makes Thai education policy too broad and too vague. The National Education Act of 1999/2002 is the perfect example. It is known for being a system-wide reform because its nine clauses include various aspects of education reform: administrative restructuring, expansion of compulsory education, decentralisation of educational services, and introduction of outcome-based education policymaking or even technology and education. Since just about everything was included in the Act, it is easier to ask what is not.

Ironically, the current "One Tablet Per Child" policy, a controversial educational policy launched by the Pheu Thai-led government, is easily legitimised by Chapter 9, "Technologies for Education", of the National Education Act, which was created by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat-led allies. One could jokingly say that the Pheu Thai government has made the Democrats' dream come true: a policy coalition in a time of divided politics.

Many of these lead to the third weakness of Thai education reform, or what longstanding expert on Thai education, Professor Gerald Fry from the University of Minnesota, calls "the Thai educational paradox". Essentially, it refers to Thailand's failure to achieve its educational potential. According to Prof Fry, the country has invested much in human, financial and social capital, but the results do not square with the given input.

There is a fine line between defining whether Thai policy elites actually "learn", "borrow" or "copy" policy from elsewhere. That debate requires a careful theoretical analysis. However, since Thai education policymaking is legitimised by whatever is out there, it is certain that the introduction of new reform also provides a legitimate reason for "policy tourism", whereby politicians and senior policymakers get the chance to take a trip abroad.

While our senior policymakers are having fun in London or Paris, mid-level bureaucrats, principals, teachers and students suffer from the switching and shifting of educational policy based on the results of the seniors' world tour.

Instead of taking "learning from abroad" at its face value, we have to begin to critically question whether those trips and those policies are needed. To probe further, whose interest do these new policies actually serve?

Perhaps what Thailand needs isn't to introduce more "reform". It is to prioritise the areas we need, focus on them and do them well.

Easier said than done, of course.

Rattana Lao is a post doctoral fellow at the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong.

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Writer: Rattana Lao