Thailand: Tablet quick-fix not working

August 18, 2012

Since the new government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office last July, Thailand has been treated to a soap opera about the supply of tablet computers to all children starting school. Yingluck’s “one tablet per child” pledge during the campaign was probably her single most vote-catching policy, yet fulfilling it has turned into a national ordeal, as has the launch of the Aakash tablet in India.
A few weeks ago a deal was at last signed with Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development, a Chinese firm, for the provision of 400,000 tablets. On June 7, a beaming Yingluck gave away the first batch to a group of smartly dressed pupils.

Some argue the focus on the tablets has distracted attention from a deeper malaise affecting Thai education. Although the proportion of children attending school has grown over the past decade, the quality of their education has deteriorated.

Thailand’s own ombudsman reported earlier this year that, despite the extra cash, the national standardised examination results show students’ scores in the core subjects of English, maths and science have been falling. The most recent Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum ranked Thailand a dismal 83 (India’s rank: 56) in terms of its “health and primary education”, one of four basic indicators. This is below others in the region such as Vietnam and Indonesia; only impoverished Cambodia performs worse.

Thailand’s scores on the respected international PISA test have remained almost static since 2003 whereas Indonesia, for instance, has been moving up from a lower base. In another recent competitiveness report Thailand was ranked 54 of 56 countries globally for English-language proficiency, the second lowest in Asia.
Why does Thailand fare so badly? Somkiat Tangkitvanich, an expert at the Thailand Development Research Institute, claims there is no mystery. As in India, most of the swelling education budget has gone on higher pay for teachers (who now often earn more than the starting salary of a university lecturer), yet no improvement in performance has been extracted in return.

Somkiat argues that schools have to be made more accountable to the people who use and pay for them. Parents should have access to a school’s performance report and teachers’ pay be linked to students’ results, he says. At the moment, only small weightage is given to results in assessing a teacher for a pay hike; far more consideration is given to how the teacher maintains order in the classroom. “It’s a very subjective evaluation,” argues Somkiat, based largely on “how well you butter up the headmaster”.

Others suggest bad schools could be closed, or turned over to the private sector. These are radical ideas for a conservative country and would mean taking on powerful vested interests — not least 400,000 or so well-paid teachers. Giving every child a tablet is a nice gimmick, but is unlikely to hold the key to educational excellence.

(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education)

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