Give our poorer students a chance to learn online
The money wasted on the first-car scheme could easily have provided free lessons for kids who cannot compete with wealthier peers who can afford private tutors.
Among children's messages to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as they marked Children's Day last week, one seemed to stand out: "There are too many expensive tutorials out there and the more they are, the less chance for poor kids like me. Can it all just be done in the classroom?" asked a girl from Lop Buri.
It's a good question, and one that, apparently, no prime minister can answer. In fact, we cannot name any parent who is rich enough to afford extra tutorials and yet doesn't pay for them.
Society debates inequality like it doesn't really matter. When it comes to issues like this, nobody wants to stick his or her neck out. The truth is that parents' love goes beyond anything, even the possibility of being dubbed a hypocrite. You may be poor. You may struggle to make ends meet. But if your kid comes to you saying he or she wants to get extra tutorials in Thai, maths or English, you dig into your pocket without hesitation. There are a few people in favour of self-study, of utilising the unlimited wealth of knowledge online, but, by and large, if you can afford special tutorials for your children, you do it without thinking twice.
Partly, it's because special tutorials are effective. In many cases they are provided by people whose businesses live or die depending on how "good" they are, based on real records and word of mouth. No offence to ordinary teachers, but the motivations are different. One camp is getting more or less the same salary increase no matter how many of their students get into university, or how "good" they are in the eyes of students, but those in the other camp need great track records. If you run a tutorial class that utterly fails, you are out of business, and vice versa.
Partly, it's because it's a trend that feeds on itself. You may enter parenthood committing yourself to "fairness" and vowing that your children will succeed or fail depending on what they do in the ordinary classroom. Then you see your neighbours do it, and then your children's friends head off to see their tutors straight after school. Chances are you will blink. Before you know it, you start competing with the other parents on whose tutors are better or more exclusive. You may start parenthood with full sympathy for the girl from Lop Buri, but soon enough you find yourself shrugging at her complaints. It's painful, kid, but it's a fact of life.
Rich youngsters are caught up in this tutorial trend. My friends are doing it, and what if they all get seats at university but I don't? When adults easily succumb to tutorial paranoia, the kids stand no chance. Peer pressure is formidable in anything, but add a child's anxiety over falling behind, and it becomes deadly. It's almost impossible to go home and do your own study when all of your friends see a tutor who, they say, gets 90 per cent of his students into university.
The Lop Buri girl's only hope is for online self-study, to be swept by another revolution. The pioneers are there - both teachers and students - attempting to institutionalise academic self-help. Free tutorials, in fact, are flooding the Internet, and some TV channels have been broadcasting to classrooms. The problem is, really poor children still don't get access, and the teaching content, as well as the way it is delivered, has not been standardised.
Yingluck's government has provided computer tablets to schoolchildren, but then we see a different motivation from the likes of the administration's first-car policy. Education is not just about tools. It's about building true infrastructure and creating quality content. Free online tutorials of a systematic, effective and all-encompassing kind must be seriously considered. Then make it a trend - which shouldn't be difficult for a government that made people scramble to car dealers at the end of last year.
The same amount of money used to subsidise the first-car scheme could be spent on getting all high-profile tutors together and getting them to provide free online services. There would still be plenty of money left to fund Internet accessibility for poor children. Of course, the problem won't be solved overnight, but the Lop Buri girl would be genuinely happier.