For Thai education, grand vision needs consistent policies
Govt must give its latest minister the time to achieve some real resultsEvery Thai education minister enters the stage with a bang and, in quick succession, leaves with a whimper. Editorials have been written and warnings sounded, but the powers-that-be still see Thai education as a political revolving-door playground. More than 10 education ministers have come and gone in the governments associated with Thaksin Shinawatra alone. That number speaks for itself of the failure of political will and sincerity to upgrade the quality of our schools, teachers and students.
Now, cue Phongthep Thepkanjana, the latest in line. To be fair, he looks more promising than his recent predecessors from the same political camp. The "teach less, learn more" is quite an impressive tagline to start a tenure, but even he must admit that it's just a baby step while a mountain stands in front of him.
Let's get straight to the points, and Point Number One is that Thai education must be kept away from populism. Education is long-term investment and it's doomed from the start if our politicians' goal is to reap political gains. Giving out computer tablets, for example, may win you votes, but it's absolutely useless if its purpose was political advertisement. To improve Thai education, one needs to do something that may go unnoticed today but bear fruit 10 years later, by which time somebody else could be the government or controls the Education Ministry.
Point Number Two is that education policies need consistency. As for Thailand, 10 ministers mean 10 policies have been downgraded, put on the backburner or blatantly cancelled. With rivalry strong between the two polarised political camps, policies are not judged on their own merit but on who initiated them. In best cases, good policies belonging to a rival are reviewed and re-started, so the latest one in control can claim credit. As long as it benefits them, Thai politicians don't care how much effort has been made and how long a project will be delayed.
Point Number Three is that a higher quality of Thai teachers can never be achieved without an absolute change to the whole political mindset. "Training the trainers" is not about holding events, making some TV commercials and putting up a few billboards. It's a serious business where all the work must be done behind the scenes. Again, it's a long-term undertaking whose worst enemy is politics.
As with all predecessors, Phongthep arrived on stage with big plans and high hopes. He also has seemed to speak about all the right things. New teaching and learning methodologies are being developed as part of a big reform, he said. The new minister sees the importance of competitiveness in a fast-changing world. He knows how much education is essential with the Asian Economic Community around the corner.
We can feel upbeat by his vision, or we can be worried by the similarities between him and those who have been there before. Suchart Tadathamrongvej had a lot of grand plans. Woravat Auapinyakul knew about poor teaching qualities and wanted to do something about it. The public loved what they had to say about Thai education, about new approaches. Both of them lasted just a few months on the job.
Phongthep's biggest challenge is not to come up with a good vision, but to carry out a vision all the way, selflessly and behind the scenes. Obstacles are as much around him as in rural schools. In a political environment where everyone needs something to promote himself about, Phongthep will be the one who lays down foundation work and doesn't care who cuts the ribbons when the building is finished.
In Thailand, teachers consider themselves "hired boatmen", whose only job is to transport passengers to the other side of the river. Past education ministers, perhaps too busy entering and leaving the revolving door, do not think of themselves as such. Can Phongthep be a boatman himself, a relatively faceless figure doing a relatively thankless job? Will his boss(es) ever come to realise the importance of the "consistency" factor? The answers will tell us how much hope we should have for the future of Thai education.