written by Jocelyn Pollak
Example. Expectation. Consequence”. This is the no-nonsense mantra that the current Minister of Education, Dr Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, has based his approach to reshaping Thai education.
The much criticised Thai Ministry of Education is experiencing a level of stability and leadership under Dr Teerakiat that it has not experienced in over 20 years. He was appointed as Deputy Minister in 2014, became Vice Minister and then became the Minister in December 2016.
It’s no surprise that with a revolving door of Ministers of Education, 21 in 18 years to be exact, that reform did not stand a chance. With each new minister came new projects and initiatives; out with the old, in with the new but many survived making it a bureaucratic nightmare. Call centres without telephones, internet and intranet systems draining budgets, resources wasted across the country. Too many bureaucrats and disillusioned teachers at the sharp end.
Dr Teerakiat, a child psychiatrist practicing in the UK by trade, has stepped up to take on the role at a time when the Thai education system has reached a tipping point. There are 30,000 civil servants working for Thailand’s bloated Ministry of Education making it one of the largest ministries in the world.
To put that number in context, China, with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, has just 1000 civil servants. With so many people working at the Ministry, it would be natural to assume that Thai students should be some of the best in the world, but study after study has shown that in fact, Thais consistently score near the bottom.
Dr Teerakiat, a scientist at heart, has taken an approach analysing the symptoms, diagnosing the problem and implementing a long-term cure rather than slapping a bandage on it and rotating out of his position to move on to bigger and better government jobs. Just like any scientist would do, Dr Teerakiat first looked at the current situation to see exactly what was wrong before implementing any kinds of changes.
He secretly toured schools before his appointment to find out what the major problems were and saw what he refers to as ‘intensive care unit’ schools. One of the most interesting things that his team found was the actual statistics behind the ability of Thai English teachers. All 40,000 Thai English teachers were tested using Cambridge English standards. The results were telling.
Only 6 teachers scored as fluent, or at C level. Even more shockingly, just 350, were scored at B level, or intermediate. This left nearly all teachers as advanced beginners at best. It was truly like the blind leading the blind. So, Dr Teerakiat recognised that these teachers were desperately in need of training. The Ministry worked closely with the British Council to develop a weeks long boot camp for Thai English teachers in order to begin to bring them up to speed.
The first wave of teachers just recently completed the training and their reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Another problem that Dr Teerakiat analysed was the quality of the 400,000 teachers in Thai public schools and the fact that over 200,000 of them would be retiring within the next 10 years, leaving Thailand not only with a quality issue but also a manpower issue.
How to remedy this? In Thailand, if you graduate from the best university in the country, Chulalongkorn University, with a degree in biology, you are not allowed to teach. You can only teach if you go to one of the teacher colleges. This means that some of the best and brightest minds in Thailand are barred from teaching the younger generations simply because they chose to pursue the best education available in the country.
This did not make sense to Dr Teerakiat, so he repealed that rule. Now, if you graduate with a degree in biology from anywhere, you are allowed to teach. This policy will not only give the brightest minds the opportunity to be in the classroom, but it will also help to alleviate the manpower issue of losing so many teachers in the next decade.
One of the most criticised practices in the Thai education system is their foundation in rote memorisation. If there is a unit on the Titanic, for example, a Western school would have a history teacher focusing on the history, a science teacher teaching about icebergs, an English teacher using journals of passengers, maybe even an art teacher teaching how to paint a boat.
In Thailand, a unit on the Titanic would be: Who was the captain? A, B, C, D. When did it sink? A, B, C, D. For Thailand to remain competitive in the future, Dr Teerakiat recognises that critical thinking and common sense are absolutely essential because computers will be able to process the information more quickly than a human. However, when I asked him why he hasn’t enacted a major reform to combat rote memorisation, he had a very insightful point.
He said, “Reform can’t be created, it must evolve.” He then went on to explain that the rote system exists because without it, there is nothing. If you remove it, then what’s left? Nothing. So rather than removing and replacing the antiquated system, he is focused on “properly allocating resources and operating under the rule of law” to allow the system to breathe and evolve into something that supports the modern market demands.
Thailand’s challenge is a major one: the latest triennial programme for International Student Assessment results ranked it 54 out of 70 countries, even though education received about a fifth of the 2.73 trillion Baht ($81 billion) annual budget, one of the largest expenditure items. Singapore was the top performer in the PISA assessment, with Japan second, Taiwan fourth, China sixth and Vietnam eighth.
When it comes to international schools, Dr Teerakiat believes two main things. First, overseas universities should be allowed to establish campuses in Thailand (previously, they were not allowed). Two universities, Carnegie Mellon and The National University of Taiwan, have already opened campuses in Thailand and there are several others coming down the pipeline. In terms of K-12 international schools, he believes that the MOE’s job is “to control the quality of these schools, not meddle with their businesses.”
As a strong believer in market systems, he said, “If they are meeting their quality criteria, I want to get out of the way of international schools”. He believes that in the globalising world, it would be wise for Thailand to embrace international education rather than shun it.
All of these are examples of how he and his team have taken a much more analytical and fact-based approach to the problems at hand, but the current jewel of his reforms is a teacher training voucher system. The professional development system for teachers in the past provided no incentive to teachers to retrain and develop themselves.
The lack of accountability for these training resources left the ministry incredibly vulnerable to corruption. Dr Teerakiat’s robust reform distributes 10,000B directly to each teacher to allow them to choose the training that is relevant to them. This money can be used for over 2000 professional development training courses, all of which are tracked online with the hope of reducing corruption and the “disappearance” of these funds.
Within one month of launching this system, 320,000 of the 400,000 teachers had already enrolled and the MoE training website which had previously received a couple hits a day peaked at nearly 28 million in one day. Dr Teerakiat is self-admittedly rattling the cage of a lot of people with his revolutionary reforms and believes that in order for Thailand to reach its potential, these are non-negotiable changes that need to be made.
As he has spent a large portion of his life living, working and raising a family in the UK, he feels a unique connection to the expat community. As he continues to push forward with his cures, he hopes that the expat community will support his initiatives to bring a more global, well-rounded education to the children of Thailand.
“We have 30,000 bureaucrats who don’t teach but are running schools,” Education Minister Teerakiat said in the July 12 interview, signaling that one of the main obstacles to reform may be the Education Ministry itself. “In Vietnam, there’re only 70 in their ministry.”
Dr Teerakiat, who has a background in child and adolescent psychiatry, said corruption has been another problem.“If I were like the previous politicians, I’ll be the richest man this month,” he said, pointing out the Education Minister has discretion over 4 billion Baht in unspent education budget funds.
Dr Teerakiat said a bottom up strategy that gives schools and universities more autonomy to make decisions is the best way forward. The same principle should apply to teacher training because it suffered in the past from rigid central planning that demoralised teachers, he said. Teerakiat announced a new voucher system earlier this month that enables universities and colleges to offer their own courses, and gives prospective teachers freedom to choose areas they want to be trained in. He’s also asked his department to come up with a plan to establish a new Ministry of Higher Education.
“The website for teacher training, usually there is only one or two hits, if you are lucky,” he said. “Yesterday alone: 28.8 million hits. It’s just amazing to see when you use the market system, when you empower them, when you abolish the central planning, use the bottom up approach, things work phenomenally. It has never happened in Thailand.”