Surin says good English is key to gaining better grades

English could hold the key to improving Thai education, which is currently lagging behind that of Thailand's regional neighbours, former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said.

In response to the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) report on global competitiveness, Mr Surin said: "We must pay attention to the content of the WEF's findings."

"Our position is getting worse. We have seen Thailand's scores sliding down the scale in all categories, survey after survey, year after year.

"This is a serious matter that calls for a national strategy to reverse the trend."

The WEF's Global Competitiveness Report for 2012-2013 ranked Thailand's education quality the worst among eight Asean countries surveyed.

The other seven countries were Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. Myanmar and Laos were not included in the survey.

The survey describes Thailand's quality of higher education as "abnormally low" in comparison to other Asean member states.

Mr Surin said Thai education has been in crisis for quite some time. Efforts to bring about reforms since 1999 have not borne fruit due to political interference and bureaucratic resistance.

"We talk a lot about teaching our students to be critical, to think independently and to solve problems, not just by rote learning and memorisation. But we are getting nowhere," he said.

Mr Surin suggested a shift of focus onto English teaching could be a trigger for positive change.

"With higher proficiency in English, Thai students can change the dynamics of the classroom," he said.

"They will have access to more information before going to classes, forcing teachers to be better prepared and turning traditional lecture rooms into seminars where active exchanges can take place."

He added that teachers have little motivation to prepare their lessons and students have no tools to access information relevant to their courses due to their usually low proficiency in English. Mr Surin urged the government to treat English as an urgent national agenda.

He also pointed out that according to the Asean charter, English is the bloc's working language.

"All Asean business is conducted in English," he said. "But Thai youths are lagging behind in this increasingly important tool of communication in Asean."

He pointed out that in 2012, among 54 countries surveyed for English proficiency Thailand ranked 53, only ahead of Libya.

"That is a dismal state of affairs to be in, when we know that export growth, GDP expansion and even per capita income increase have direct correlation with English proficiency," Mr Surin said.

"I insist that with a higher proficiency in English today, Thailand's competitiveness will increase many times over tomorrow."