Shake-up aims to stem corruption;Briefing;International

7th May 1999 at 01:00

After years of stalling over reforms, Thailand is set to adopt a new "education constitution" paving the way for a revamp of everything from outdated teaching methods to school management.

A new radical education reform bill gives Thais the right to 12 years of free schooling and calls for a more learner-centred approach to education, in a bid to help Thailand stay competitive in South-east Asia.

Passed by the lower house at the end of March and due for senate approval by July, the bill is to be followed by a raft of 26 laws over the next two years, that will mark a shift in control from central government to local education authorities and schools.

Dr Rung Kaewdang, secretary-general of the Office of the National Education Commission, said legislation would give more freedom to schools in setting their own curricula, and help to roll back corruption in education management at central level.

He said schools will be allocated funds on the basis of the number of pupils they enrol, and would take charge of their own budgets. Parents will be given education vouchers, usable at both state and private institutions.

Reformers see the bill - which follows the introduction of Thailand's first constitution drafted with a popular mandate in 1997 - as an opportunity to shake up the staid Thai style of teaching, which cultivates obedience to figures of authority.

"Traditionally education in Thailand has relied on notions of authoritarianism and subordination," said pro-democracy campaigner and educationist Piphop Dhongchai. "Teachers have absolute power in the classroom. Children aren't allowed to question them."

Dr Rung also noted that while Thai youngsters compared well with their South-east Asian peers in memory tests, they still lagged a long way behind nations like Singapore in more creative thinking.

Analysts say that the biggest obstacle to more "learner-centred" education will be the entrenched attitudes of teachers, unused either to interacting with their pupilsor departing from the national curriculum - which is rigidly transmitted to enable pupils to pass state exams.

"It will take a fantastic effort to build on the existing talent of Thailand's 600,000 teachers, so they can adapt from more conventional ways of teaching," said Prapapat Niyom, a private school owner who was on the bill's drafting committee.

Despite swingeing changes afoot, opposition to the bill has been surprisingly muted among top bureaucrats. They are set to lose influence under the reforms, which will eventually see three ministry-level institutions merge.

Dr Rung noted that the impact of the reforms on top education officials would be limited, because 70 per cent of them are scheduled to retire over the next three or four years.

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