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Education lessons from China, Vietnam

The latest global survey of education standards brought good news for China, and both good and bad news for Thailand.

The influential Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results for 2012 reinforced studies ranking Shanghai's education standards as the best in the world with Hong Kong in second place and Macao in sixth. The thrice-yearly survey is carried out under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and collates the test results of 500,000 15-year-olds in 62 countries plus Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau.

Thailand rated 50th overall and well below the average in all three categories - mathematics (50/65), reading (48/65) and science (47/65). If you're looking for positives, our performance improved slightly from 2009, a fact that was highlighted by Sunee Klainin, Pisa Thailand's national project manager. She cited better teaching at schools supervised by the Basic Education Commission and greater opportunities for learning as factors contributing to the improvement in scores.

The greatest improvement was in schools with "education expansion opportunities" - and this drove the better scores for Thailand as a whole, she said.

I'm not sure what these "education expansion opportunities" are, but if they're the catalyst to improved education at a time when regionalisation demands Thailand pull up its education socks to match its Asean peers, then we need more of them.

Why is China doing so well? It's not just the flagship centres of Shanghai and Hong Kong flying high, as pupils in other parts of China, including poorer rural areas, are also understood to be surpassing most of their international peers. This is likely to be confirmed when the next Pisa study includes the whole of China.

Experts believe China's success reflects a devotion to education not shared by some other cultures. Successful school systems such as China's are distinguished by features that include an emphasis on improving the quality of teachers and making sure they are highly regarded, providing information to make schools accountable and granting autonomy to schools and head teachers. Putting more money into the system does not necessarily lead to better results.

But Thailand doesn't have to look as far as China for a role model. Pisa débutante Vietnam was the survey's dark horse, making it into the top 10 for science and coming in 17th overall, outstripping Thailand's scores by an average of 18 per cent.

Clearly Vietnam is doing something right, and maybe those in charge of our school system could usefully spend some time examining at close quarters what that is - all in the spirit of Asean comradeship. I last wrote about education in this column a year ago, and noted then how Thailand's standards, measured against international peers, had been slipping for many years. The latest Pisa results do little to allay those concerns.

The coming of the Asean Economic Community in 2015, when Thailand will be much more exposed to competition from its neighbours, makes improving our education system an even more pressing need. This includes improving literacy in English, the lingua franca of international business. I know there are no easy answers, but I hope that when the next Pisa results are released there'll be something more encouraging to write about.

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