Bigwigs try to pass buck on failing schools

Bigwigs try to pass buck on failing schools

While our obsolete and authoritarian education system is damaging young minds, making them lag far behind their peers in other countries, education bigwigs have different concerns: how to get out of the blame game.

When Thai students consistently fail in both national and international tests, all fingers point to the Education Ministry. After all, the ministry receives 24% of the national budget. This percentage is the second highest in the world.

That's not all. Thai students' class hours are among the highest in the world. Yet their education proficiency is among the world's worst. 

Unesco recommends students have only 800 class hours per year. Here, it's 1,000 hours for primary students and 1,200 for secondary students. Students in Japan and South Korea, renowned for their highly competitive and exam-obsessed education system, do not exceed 1,000 class hours. 

Copious studies blame students' poor results on the education system's focus on rote learning, poor teaching, autocratic school culture, lack of accountability at school, and rigid centralisation.

The Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec), however, has found a new culprit. It says schools are not to blame. Nor are teachers. Nor the Education Ministry. It lays the blame at other state agencies or projects that take kids out of the classroom. 

According to Obec secretary-general Kamol Rodklai, extra-curricular activities are eating into students' class hours. In short, the kids do not study enough. The solution, Obec says, is to reduce extra-curricular activities so that students spend more time in class.

I wish you could hear the deep sigh this information elicits from me.

This latest policy from the agency which makes all decisions on primary education speaks volumes about why our education system is mired in hopelessness.

Students are supposed to have 200 school days a year, Mr Kamol said. But they end up only having 118 days because they must attend as many as 67 activities each year.

This may be why their academic performance is so poor, he said. "We want to return students' study time," he said. 

He wants to cut extra-curricular activities to only 40 days a year.

The problem stems from a lack of coordination and the tendency of many agencies to require students' attendance to make their projects look successful, he said. Activities during examination periods should also be prohibited, he added.

To be fair, he is correct that unnecessary activities can be reduced. But shouldn't the decision rest with local schools? Why do education bigwigs in Bangkok, with no idea of local realities, have the last say on every minute detail? 

Dismissing the value of extra-curricular activities while equating classroom hours with academic quality is a dangerous view — especially when rote learning and poor teaching are the norm. 

For students, a chance to visit important sites, attend outdoors events, or work together as a team in extra-curricular activities are not only a chance to escape the boring and oppressive top-down classroom atmosphere, they are an opportunity to be in touch with the real world.

For many students whose parents cannot afford these activities, the chances offered by outside agencies are precious. 

I have friends who have opted to home-school their children or send them to alternative schools with more open learning environments. They don't want their kids' creativity to be stifled by the oppressive education system — one that focuses on textbook memorisation and top-down authority.

Home-schooling and special schools are expensive, and homeschooling demands parents' total dedication. Only a few can afford to offer that. 

What Obec considers extra-curricular activities are at the core of their programmes. The kids attend exhibitions, they visit local communities to learn about their problems and successes. They play music, they attend workshops, they draw, they cook, they plant trees, they write diaries, they think, they ask, they have fun — and that's how they learn and grow.

If anything, this latest Obec policy reveals how out of touch it is with modern students' needs. And how in denial it is of its own faults arising from policy centralisation. 

Don't try and escape blame. Face the hard facts. Let local communities decide how they want to educate their children. Only then can the country get out of its education rut.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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