Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, recently elevated from deputy to full education minister, must know he bears a huge weight of expectation to kick-start “real reform” of the country’s education system. He obviously intends to “make things happen”. But then, he doesn’t want to disappoint his many well-wishers either.
“Please understand that I’m no superman,” he declared with a wistful smile.
We were gathered in what I dubbed “the first digital town hall-style meeting” – a mix of live audience in a television studio and Facebook Live users – to pose questions and exchange views with the minister. Teerakiat was ready to field questions and listen to suggestions spontaneously, unlike most Cabinet members who demand a list of questions in advance. He was not nervous about responding to “real-time” messages – unscripted and uncensored – posted on social media.
“When I became deputy education minister about a year ago, some said I was living in an ivory tower, having spent most of my time abroad. They said I didn’t understand the real situation on the ground. Well, let me tell you that I have been visiting schools in rural areas and I have learned a lot since,” Teerakiat, who graduated from Chulalongkorn University in child psychiatry and is a member of the London-based Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the audience.
He kicked off the discussion by reminding everybody concerned that his term as education minister will most probably last one year. “You must also realise that we have had 18 education ministers in 10 years. That’s another consideration,” he added.
The minister’s agenda is therefore rather precise and can’t be too ambitious.
He wasn’t going to dismantle the ministry’s whole structure. Nor would be try to overhaul the entrenched bureaucracy which, he admitted, remained a major bottleneck in the reform process.
“I have been advised by experts that if I want to get at least some concrete results within such a short period, I shouldn’t aim at shaking up the bureaucratic structure. If I tried to do that, I would spend most of my time dealing with those who will resist the change in every way possible. I would end up getting very little done,” he said.
Instead, the minister has set himself realistic goals for the 12 months ahead.
Top of his priority list is to help those who need help the most: Rural schools whose standards are so bad that they need to be put into “intensive care units” immediately. Out of a total 30,000 primary and high schools, about 3,000 fall in this category of needing “urgent and real help”.
Most of these poor schools have only one teacher, required to teach all subjects to students who don’t have their own textbooks and stationery and are often too poor to even afford lunch.
The huge gap between rural schools and their city equivalents is still widening, and there is no solution in sight, since the flawed budgeting system favours a very small number of students at the top of the pyramid.
Reversing that trend would be such a gargantuan task that even the prime minister, despite his absolute power, hasn’t assigned Teerakiat to deliver a complete shake-up of the deep-rooted system.
The new minister, however, believes that his “ICU Schools” project could sow the seeds of the desperately needed real, meaningful change from the ground up.
Also high on his priority list is instilling respect for integrity and honesty in young minds while rejecting practices related to corruption and conflict of interest – something he considers crucial to forging a new generation of Thais passionate about building a democratic, responsible and accountable society.
His other big mission is to raise the standards of spoken English among young Thai students. Drawing a collective sigh of relief in the audience, both online and offline, the minister declared: “I am very delighted to announce that [written] English grammar lessons have been taken off the primary curriculum.”
But success won’t come easily as long as the old, bureaucratic ground rules remain unchanged – and unchangeable for the foreseeable future.
The minister has invited well-known English-language teachers to offer their services (either for free or financed by non-government sources) to young students who find their regular teachers either incompetent or boring or both.
Stumbling blocks can’t simply be brushed away, though. The minister may be prepared to “break all the rules” to get things done, including by looking to the private sector. But the old guard remains stubbornly powerful.
When Chris Wright, a well-known young English-language teacher, suggested that a group of teachers was ready to lend a hand, Teerakiat said:
“I would love to ask you guys to help out in teaching English and I know things would improve instantly. But if I tell the ministry bureaucrats that I want Chris Wright on the project, they would immediately say I couldn’t do it. I would have to go through a bidding process. So, I will have to find not only Chris but also John and Tom, etc. That’s why things remain where they are today.”
But Teerakiat refuses to be deterred by the problems that have plagued education reform all along. He has now been given a chance. He is determined to prove that with his passion and vision – and the help of all concerned with offering Thai children a better future – he can get the ball rolling.
Perhaps the first big test comes with a proposal from his deputy, ML Panadda Diskul, that the title of “School Director” should revert to just “Headmaster” to reflect the true mission of a teacher – guiding youngsters to become “good, responsible citizens”.
The title “director” has turned a school’s senior-most person into an official interested in everything for his or her own promotion – except good, old professional teaching.
The minister didn’t say it in so many words, but I could sense that if given the chance he wouldn’t hesitate to put the whole Education Ministry in one huge “Intensive Care Unit”.