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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 January, 2005, 01:15 GMT
Lessons from Thailand's schools
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Pupils in classroom
The school, despite its size, was very calm
Fanaticism for Liverpool and Manchester United, a capital city clogged solid by traffic jams, and education reform being pushed at a giddy speed by a prime minister preparing to win another election mandate.

The UK? No, this is Thailand.

A huge exchange of ideas is taking place between British and Thai educators at the Thai-UK Education Festival in Bangkok, organised by the British Council.

As well as 80 British universities,

expecting to recruit record numbers of Thai students, a large slice of Britain's senior educators are here to exchange ideas with Thai counterparts.

Why Thailand? Well the parallels are uncanny. Starting at the top, both countries have prime ministers equally determined to drive through radical modernisation in schools.

Knowledge economy

Both countries have witnessed a rapid turnover of education ministers amid the hurly-burly of difficult reforms and impatience for results.

Thailand has had seven ministers of education in five years. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra even took on the job himself for a while.

Like Tony Blair he sees education, and the concept of a "knowledge economy", as crucial to international competitiveness.

Many of the reforms just beginning in Thailand are very similar to the changes that have happened in England over the past decade.

For example, Thailand is developing a series of specialist schools.

It is also investing heavily in a national strategy for the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in schools, and is piloting schemes for gifted and talented children.

Festival
UK heads were impressed by what they saw

Thailand's government makes no apologies for the breakneck pace of change demanded from a society which, generally, values tradition.

Opening the festival, Piyabutr Cholvijarn, the Vice-Minister of Education, said: "We have to re-think everything we have known about education; the old model is dead."

In a reflection of the specialist schools programme, the Thai government is introducing a number of innovative "model schools".

These include "Model ICT schools", each one supervised by a university and co-operating closely with the private sector.

Then there are "dream schools", also known as "lab schools", which are intended to lead the way in radical redesigns of curriculum, learning, and teaching.

New "bilingual schools" will promote the government's strong belief in the importance of learning English.

At designated schools, up to half the teaching will be in English even at pre-primary level. At some secondary schools the entire curriculum, apart from Thai language and culture, will be taught in English.

Uniforms

Bordin Decha, a state secondary school on the outskirts of Bangkok, is one of the pioneering "dream schools", which is also incorporating a bilingual and ICT strategy.

To British eyes it is staggeringly big: 4,000 students aged 12 to 18, all of whom wear uniform (the sight of 17 to 18-year-olds in school uniform is not unusual in a country where many university students wear one as they walk the city streets).

The majority of students at Bordin Decha come here because they live in the neighbourhood, but about 25% are admitted under a "gifted and talented" scheme aimed at those with a particular ability or aptitude.

This group is given a fast-track timetable, with harder lessons and earlier exams.

Many of these ideas, especially the use of ICT in schools, have drawn on British expertise, mediated by the British Council.

Some 350 Thai head teachers and policy-advisors have just attended a "leading edge" conference with leading British experts. This is being followed-up with a series of master classes for groups of classroom teachers.

But this need not be a one-way street. If some of the reforms in Thailand resemble what has been happening in English schools, there are aspects of Thai schools which could, in return, be a model for Britain.

Pupils having a meal
Pupils are still taught about traditional Thai culture

British experts who have been visiting schools here have been struck by the positive attitude of students, the absence of discipline problems, and the strong focus on Thai culture combined with deep respect for other cultures.

Geoff Rees, head of Ivybridge Community College, a Devon comprehensive, says he was struck by the "mutual respect between adult and student that comes from the Buddhist culture".

As he noted, "discipline is never an issue, as good behaviour and respect to others is inculcated in their culture".

This was certainly borne out by a visit to Bordin Decha school.

Despite having 4,000 students, the school felt extremely calm. Yet no teachers were patrolling and no commands were being uttered.

Even after the formal lessons were over, students remained on campus until 6pm, doing homework, activities and sports.

Bows and smiles

They greeted their teachers with the big smiles and respectful bow which is the essence of the traditional "wai" hello.

The day starts with a whole-school, outdoor Buddhist ceremony which appeared to set the tone for the meditative calm of the rest of the school day.

The respect for staff is highlighted on "teachers' day", when every student brings in elaborate flower arrangements for their teachers.

Like other schools, Bordin Decha ensures that students know and value their own culture.

As the school's head of Thai studies, Ruji Tantiaswayotin, told me: "We want them to love their own culture."

Pride and pleasure

So, in common with other schools, it has its own Thai culture centre. In some schools this may be a single room but here it is a suite of rooms plus a magnificent museum, open to the public.

Students learn about Thai poetry, song, history, food, flowers and, of course, about Buddhism.

But this does not just involve formal lesson times. They follow regular cultural activities and individual study outside the timetable.

A panel of 30 students also takes part in running the school's museum, helping to clean and maintain it and conducting tours for visitors.

The students' pride and pleasure in their school's history and their culture could not be more evident.

Many of the British education experts came away from school visits wondering how they might "bottle" this respect for teachers, learning and culture and bring it back to Britain.


SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Thailand
08 Jan 05 |  Country profiles


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