Nov 12, 2012

Thailand - Lessons from Chinese education

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A key factor in any country's economic success is the standard of its education system. While it has been historically difficult to measure how China's system compares to the rest of the world, recent studies suggest Chinese standards are high and are rapidly overtaking those of many other countries in both Asia and the West.

Meanwhile, Thailand's education system compares poorly to other countries on many measures. With the advent of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, high education standards will be more important than ever if Thai businesses and individuals are to succeed regionally.

The tests that highlight China's strong showing, known as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), are carried out every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. After the last one in 2009, the BBC ran a website headline referring to "China: The world's cleverest country?" This year's results will be available next year.

China's stellar showing was led by Shanghai and Hong Kong. Although it was unclear from the Pisa published results whether others parts of China were doing as well, the OECD says unpublished data confirm that pupils in other parts of China also performed strongly, including in poorer provinces, with students doing well regardless of their family income.

That's a far cry from Thailand. Recent newspaper headlines refer to education gaps between poor and well-off families that are "costing the country trillions", and complaints that Thai education standards are "in a free fall", as key numeracy and literacy standards, as measured by international tests such as Pisa, continue to slide.

Thai educators acknowledge that the basics of literacy and numeracy need to be improved and that standards among Thai schools often vary widely.

So what can we learn from China? Cheng Kai-Ming, a professor of education at Hong Kong University, says China's success is due to "a devotion to education not shared by some other cultures". The World Bank says 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 giving autonomy to schools and head teachers. Putting more money into the system does not necessarily lead to better results.

Thai education standards, as measured against international peers, have been slipping for many years, so it's not news that we need to arrest the fall. The coming of the AEC, when Thailand will be much more exposed to competition from its neighbours, brings greater urgency to the challenge. Literacy in English, the common language of business, is a key concern.

A 2012 study by Kasetsart University economists, which focused on blue-collar workers, concludes that while a more liberal labour market under the AEC could provide opportunities for Thai workers, they need to improve their weak English proficiency compared with other AEC members. While schooling is not the only key to tackling this problem, say the authors, it is a major factor.

Improving Thailand's education system is a complex, long-term project, and we can learn from many sources, including China, which is now reaping the dividends of years of hard work and smart planning.

Suwatchai Songwanich

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