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Grab this chance to reform education

If it wants to leave Thailand in better shape, the junta must focus on our failing school system

Cancelling the one-tablet-per-child scheme was a positive move by the junta, but it was just a tiny step if the ultimate goal is to overhaul the education system. Like other populist schemes, the free-tablet policy is merely a symptom of deeper problems that have been crippling the country for years. For genuine education reform, we need bolder efforts that uproot the whole system.

The Bt4-billion budget earmarked for the tablets is now poised to go to new education projects considered more beneficial to students. But this bonus will be short-lived if the military government falls into the same trap as previous administrators. The public is hoping to see a change towards long-term education development. They need a concrete solution that lasts decades rather than a quick fix that only lead to more problems in the future.

There has never been a better chance to revolutionise education. Sweeping changes are made much more easily under authoritarian rule. The past decades have seen a game of musical chairs played at the helm of the Education Ministry. Education has been held hostage to political expediency, with short-term thinking and regular policy upheavals leaving students the victims of substandard schooling.

Having seized power and vowed to facilitate political reform, the junta must address education, a foundation stone for the country. Trying to move forward without education reform would be like counting "two" before "one". Without the bedrock of educated citizens, much-needed political and economic reform will collapse.

The percentage of public funds that Thailand spends on education is said to be among the highest in the world, but we have little to show for it. The lack of correlation between the money spent and the results is a damning illustration of the country's direction-less development. Drastic measures are needed to get the education system back on track. There are flaws at every level, with the crisis centring on the longstanding problem of inadequate quality and quantity of teachers.

Much-praised reforms launched in the 1960s by then-education minister ML Pin Malakul emphasised teacher training. Had Thailand followed that path, our school system would be in much better shape. Instead we are left with, among other things, a yawning gap in the quality of teaching that means students in rural areas continue to lose out.

While training is one aspect we most focus on, teachers' income is also crucial. Underpaid for decades, many of those teaching in our schools have fallen into serious debt. We need to learn from the example of developed countries, where the teaching profession offers good pay and thus draws quality people to the education sector.

Whoever is chosen to head the Education Ministry under the interim government should grab the chance to drastically change the curriculum. Thai education needs changes that address the new conditions of competition and integration we will face as part of the Asean Economic Community to be inaugurated next year. Successive elected governments have failed to improve education because their main focus was on getting re-elected or benefiting the politicians.

The junta can learn plenty from studying the accumulated mistakes of its predecessors, paving the way for an interim government that places education reform at the top of the national agenda. It should grasp this chance to scrap short-term policies aimed at attracting votes or benefiting vested interests. Those in government have preached child-centred education development for decades; now is the time to back those words with actions. There are many downsides to authoritarian government, but one boon is the opportunity to reshape the country's future with positive changes in education.


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