Misguided misconceptions

Vocational education is a viable and important alternative for Thai youth

Bramee Guigomut, left, and classmate Jasmine Lembo, students at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus School, plan to use their vocational skills as a stepping stone to improve their career potential. Photos courtesy of Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus School (CHIJ)

When it comes to the career path Thai parents desire for their children, vocational education more likely than not ranks at the bottom.

According to a recent study by the Office of the Education Council, negative attitudes towards "alternative education" -- anything outside the senior secondary school courses that pave the way to university entrance -- is the biggest challenge preventing the Office of the Vocational Education Commission (Ovec) from reaching its target to have a greater number of students enrol.

The common perception, especially among the middle class, is that vocational studies are only for academically inferior students who have neither ability nor ambition to enter a university. News stories about school rivalry that end in violence and sometimes death further erode the image of vocational students -- unfairly so sometimes.

Vocation training in Thailand starts in senior high school. Secondary education is divided into two branches -- general and vocational education. Over 60% of students prefer general education.

Last academic year, the number of students enrolling in vocational courses also declined by 0.4% from the previous year. Despite Ovec's large budget to improve curriculum and modernise equipment and study materials, vocational education still remains a last option for most parents. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that the Education Ministry should find a way to encourage Mathayom 3 students to consider vocational studies since the path prepares them for the job market. He also said more scholarships should be provided.

Vocational schools such as Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus School (CHIJ) are also encouraging parents to think outside the box from others on the debate over formal and informal schooling.

Jasmine Lembo and classmate Bramee Guigomut are two students at CHIJ who aspire to use their vocational skills to better their job potential in the near future.

Third-year students have opted to hone their vocational skills in subjects such as business English and office procedures instead of going through the motions of studying subjects such as algebra and science, which they may not use much in the future.

Nonetheless the CHIJ top-notchers have had to face a fare share of outside resistance on their decision to pick a vocational institution.

Jasmine, 18, said: "I was lucky my mother supported my desire to study at CHIJ, which is one of Thailand's first all-girls English secretarial vocational school, and been around 55 years.

"However, my peers thought differently. They have a misconception that vocational schools are mostly for students with a low IQ, so the knowledge one gets does not necessarily equip them with proper know-how for a bright future.

"There is also a generalisation that all vocational schools have unruly students who are always looking for trouble. However, I believe we should not judge a book by its cover. We need to experience it by ourselves. For me, it's been very rewarding. Not only have I become more confident in speaking English, I have expanded my knowledge in IT, office procedures and other subjects that in my opinion benefit me to a greater degree even if I decide to work directly after obtaining my vocational certificate that is equivalent to a high school diploma."

Sharing the same sentiments, Bramee, 16, added: "It is most unfortunate vocational institutions in Thailand have been lumped into one terrible place to send your children. Good and bad schools are everywhere.

"What has benefited me in preparing for the workforce has been the focus on developing our personalities, which is important in the outside world."

A graduate of CHIJ, Chamaiporn Yongvongphaiboon, said that university degrees have evolved into a show of status, and in effect vocational education has become heavily criticised. Most assume vocational education is for students who lack the brains and the money. However, she is one of the graduates from this secretarial school that has broken this myth.

Chamaiporn, an entrepreneur, attributes her career success to her vocational education. "I am a business owner. I have to communicate and work with other companies from foreign-speaking countries. They asked me where I graduated from and when I tell them I graduated from a vocational school, without further studies in college, they do not believe me."

Chamaiporn said vocational schools do not offer a lesser education than prestigious high schools. Instead, they teach subjects with the sole purpose of applying them to real life. Instead of glossing over business books, these students are out and engaging in the trade.

Ovec's secretary-general Suthep Chitayawong emphasised the fact that vocational students can also choose a university path and even pursue an advanced degree if they want. Following the initiative of the government, Ovec is strengthening vocational courses in six specific fields, such as railway technicians and robotics mechanics, that are in high demand according to the nation's developmental course.

Despite the negative coverage vocational schools have received in Thailand, education experts believe the need for young Thais should be encouraged to consider vocational education as an option. The government has set a long-term target to increase the ratio of vocational to general education students to 60:40 over the next 20 years.

Some of the areas of concern, apart from violent brawls among vocational students, are reported to be substandard school guidance systems and the fact that the larger, more prestigious schools are accepting too many students. Further issues that need to be dealt with are a lack of career guidance services.

Students at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus School spend the day with children from the Foundation for Rehabilitation and Development of Children and Family. Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus School (CHIJ)

Sharpening their secretarial skills for a bright future.