THE LATEST version of the Early Childhood Bill is not expected to make much difference because many of its key clauses have been disappointingly toned down, a prominent expert on child development said.
“The bill was weakened during a Council of State review,” Suriyadeo Tripathi, director of National Institute for Child and Family Development, lamented recently.
For instance, the current version defines early childhood as birth to six years old – not from foetus stage to eight years old as defined by Unesco. Moreover, this version does not ban entrance examinations for children below the age of eight, despite concerns about the adverse impact exams have on young children.
Hence, this bill is significantly different from the version approved by the Cabinet.
“It is widely recognised that high-stake tests take a toll on young children,” Suriyadeo said. “Many experts have even labelled these exams as torture.”
He said early childhood is a period of significant development, and children at that stage cannot withstand the stress associated with failing to live up to expectations.
Suriyadeo said though the bill still says that education during early-childhood should focus on the promotion of learning and not place emphasis on competitive exams, it is easy to see that schools will not stop putting children through exams if they do not face any serious penalties.
Initially, there were high hopes that the Early Education Bill – once legislated – would protect youngsters from unnecessary stress and the loss of confidence, because back then it sought to bar schools from testing children during the enrolment process. It also prohibited exams from Prathom 1 to Prathom 3, and threatened primary schools with a fine of up to Bt500,000 if they held entrance exams.
While the Cabinet approved the previous version, the bill was significantly amended when it was with the Council of State.
The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is set to deliberate the revised version shortly.
Suriyadeo said he can only hope that the NLA will change the content of the bill back to how it was when it left the Cabinet, adding that the need to ban tough exams for young children should not be ignored.
“I personally witnessed a young child walk out of an entrance exam vomiting and with a bleeding nose,” he said, referring to some of the symptoms of stress among children.
He also cited Singapore, saying the island state has stopped the outdated approach of using exams that label some children as losers.
In recent years, many parents in Thailand have been enrolling their children in tutorial classes from a very young age in the hope of equipping them with various skills, academic knowledge and the opportunity to enter the country’s most prestigious schools. In fact, some toddlers at the tender age of two and a half are forced to prepare for entry into top primary schools, as competition at these schools was very fierce, he said.
“Sometimes these schools attract 3,000 applications for just 100 seats,” he said.
Assoc Professor Daranee Utairatanakit, vice chair of the Independent Committee for Education Reform, said the NLA’s ad-hoc committee on the Early Childhood Education Bill was to convene its first meeting on January 7.
“The committee should take no more than 45 days before submitting the bill to the legislative assembly for deliberation,” she added.
As for disappointment among activists about the bill not imposing a total ban on exams for young children, she said, the ban “has been removed because it will not be practical to punish those working to promote education”. She explained that the punishment clauses were only removed after several people raised concerns that punishment should be prescribed against criminals – not the country’s educators.
However, she said, that even though the punishment clauses have been removed, an Early Childhood Development Policy Committee will be established to help govern enrolment criteria for young students.
Daranee also said that some well-known institutions, such as Kasetsart University’s demonstration school, did indeed want to scrap entrance exams.
“They are looking for other fair selection criteria when the number of applicants exceeds available seats,” she said.
As for there not being a new agency to directly handle early-childhood development affairs, Daranee said it should be possible to have the secretary-general of the Education Council support the work of the Early Childhood Development Policy Committee.
“This committee is expected to engage in all sectors of education,” she added.