New curriculum must ready students for the workforce
The advent of the Asean Community at the end of 2015 has brought to the forefront of our thinking the urgency of reform in many areas.
Among these is our education system, which remains out of touch with the modern world and fails to meet the demands of the 21st-century job market.
To address the problem, the government recently established the Board of Basic Education Curriculum Reform, chaired by Prof Pavich Thongroj, adviser to the education minister.
Around the same time, the Quality Learning Foundation (QLF) held a forum for academics and stakeholders to brainstorm about curriculum reform.
A group of educators, led by QLF board vice-chairman Dr Krissanapong Kirtikara, agreed that accessibility is no longer a problem in the Thai education system. Instead, their concerns are the "employability and workability" of students.
Statistics from the QLF show that 70% of Thai youth have to leave school early to find work, some without even finishing compulsory education.
Among the 30% of students who do graduate from university, only 10% are able to find a job within 12 months.
The statistics tell us that our youth are not well-prepared nor equipped with the skills needed for employment.
Educators agree that reform should be based on the idea that education, work and employment should be embedded in the curriculum from the school level.
Education and work cannot be separated from each other, and the curriculum should be work-oriented and "tailor-made" to suit the interests of every group of learners.
At present, one of the problems of our education system is excessive classroom teaching. The number of formal teaching hours for Thai students is the highest when compared with those of other countries.
Thai students aged 11 spend 1,200 hours a year in the classroom, while Malaysian students study 964 hours, Chinese students 862 hours and Japanese students 771 hours.
Despite such high classroom hours and huge public investments in basic and higher education, Thai students still have low achievement levels due to the system of rote learning and content-oriented study, with no incentives for independent and creative thinking.
And in English proficiency, Thailand ranks very low among Asian countries.
Furthermore, it is important the new curriculum should recognise the social context _ Thailand is currently an ageing society and the number of school students is declining.
According to Dr Krissanapong, primary school enrolments have been dwindling over the past decade, with one-third of schools becoming smaller.
The target of education reform consequently should not be limited to those in the school system, but should also help those in the workforce upgrade their skills.
As a developing country, Thailand is ageing, poor and uneducated. Our present workforce suffers from a lack of education, low functional literacy (compared to Asean countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines), and low productivity.
Basic education should not neglect our 35-million-strong workforce. Instead, it should pay more attention to three fronts _ improving the literacy of the young workforce; increasing their productivity within a few decades before they are aged; and improving literacy and productivity of aged workers so they can contribute to the economy.
To focus more on vocational education, curriculum reform must value hands-on capabilities. Reform will also need more active participation of other players such as local governments, private and non-governmental organisations, as well as corporate colleges or universities.
Baan Muang Kued School in Chiang Mai, where more than 80% of the students are ethnic minorities, is a successful model of a school operating with a tailor-made curriculum.
School principal Narong Apaijai decided to re-design the school curriculum in 2006 after noticing the student drop-out rate was high.
The new curriculum, known as the Baan Muang Kued School model, seeks to equip students with the skills needed for the local job market, such as basketry, Thai traditional massage, folk music, tourism and hospitality training, in addition to academic subjects. The programmes are well supported by local administration organisations and business operators who offer internships at the working premises.
The result has been a decreasing number of dropouts. Students are happier in class, and can also make money for their families. They can earn a living in their neighbourhood without having to leave their homes for work.
The Committee on Basic Education Curriculum Reform was formed in March. Initially, the committee has agreed the new curriculum should cover six groups of knowledge _ language and culture; STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths); work life; media skills and communication; society and humanity; and Asean and the world. The total teaching hours should not exceed 800 hours per year.
The panel, which will conclude its work in six months, is open for input from experts in each field to develop content for each knowledge group, committee member Prof Sumalee Tangpradubkul said. Once the curriculum structure is completed, the next step is to train teachers to help them understand the assessment methods of the new curriculum.
The blueprint will be ready soon. But as with other problems this country faces, the problem lies in the implementation.
Anjira Assavanonda is a former senior reporter with the Bangkok Post, covering social issues.