Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has identified the results of bad education policies correctly. He noted quite bluntly in a message to teachers and their managers last week that Thai students perform woefully at all levels, in all tests, at home and abroad. This is hardly news. But his recommendations on turning around this wretched state of affairs were less on point, and a lost opportunity.
The prime minister was addressing 20,000 teachers, and "senior education management" as the organisers of the Office of the Basic Education Commission called them. The meeting in Bangkok was a prime chance for Gen Prayut to show his tough side. Instead, according to reports from inside the meeting hall, it all dissolved into bromides and calls for teachers to do better, and "educators" to embrace new thinking.
This is all very correct. But like leaders before him, and like his current regime's primary bodies, Prime Minister Prayut fell far short on the specifics. He made a controversial, flat statement that "Educational problems cannot be solved by political means". In literal terms, he is correct. He quickly added that for education to improve, there has to be cooperation from all involved sectors. After bluntly instructing leading educators to do a better job of educating young people, Gen Prayut almost immediately pointed out, again correctly, that there is no clear direction from above.
There is general agreement among the public, media and other circles, that the military regime has so far failed education. Gen Prayut led a military coup that promised reform. Outside of the direct political sphere, there has been little. Several polls in the past year have allowed the public to vent their feelings, and each time the two top criticisms of the current government are a failure to reform the Royal Thai Police and a lack of any sort of reform in education.
Gen Prayut told the educators that "flaws in the system" need fixing. This is understated. There is little disagreement among serious educators, teachers and parents across the country that the biggest problem in education is the system. The Education Ministry, its bureaucrats and its usually outdated, often unhelpful policies are cited most often by experts seeking change, or offering to help.
The statistics are not just depressing, but shameful. For years, Thai students have ranked among the worst in the world on standardised testing. In recent, international-standard tests, our students received scores of under 50% in every subject, including Thai language.
A second set of world-standard tests by the National Institute of Educational Testing Service (Niets) last February were equally dreary. Thai students actually raised their score to 56.6% -- in Thai language. In all eight other subjects covering culture, history maths and science, Niets didn't provide the actual scores, except to say that Thai students achieved "less than 50%" in each.
It must be noted the huge Education Ministry has the biggest budget in government -- far better than defence. The problem, then, isn't money. As Gen Prayut says, teachers and local educators are getting no fresh ideas or support from above. Some believe the Ministry has become a centre of self-preservation, more interested in protecting promotions and perks than in its core duty of educating tomorrow's leaders.
The premier would do the country a favour with a firm commitment to reform of education. There is no shortage of expertise. But it will take a combination of constant support from the top and a re-commitment to our children.