BANGKOK (Reuters) - The 14-year-old pupil is known simply as “Number 26” because, with 52 children in the class at his suburban Bangkok school, the teacher can’t remember his name.
Overcrowding in classrooms is just one of the problems dogging Thailand’s education system, where an inward-looking curriculum emphasizes rote-learning and basic literacy.
Critics say that without an overhaul to bring the system into the 21st century, Thailand will lose out in the race with Asian rivals for foreign investment.
While Taiwan, Singapore, China and India have poured billions of dollars into developing world-class university education, English-language instruction and high-value skills, Thailand has moved little beyond a decades-old system that aims mostly to preserve national identity.
British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva wants to change that with a 371.5 billion baht ($12 billion) six-year education reform plan that was approved by his cabinet this month, part of a trove of policies intended to pull in votes in a tight July 3 election.
But experts say money is not the problem.
“The mindset is from the nation-building and Cold War period to produce obedient and nationalistic citizens, which does not fit the 21st-century needs,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. “It is hierarchical, top-down, with a systematic lack of critical thinking.”
The issue resonates well beyond the classroom, as Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, vies for foreign direct investment in areas beyond basic manufacturing, and as Asian rivals such as Tawain and Singapore develop a generation of innovative global companies.
“It’s easier to find young, versatile, highly skilled and English-speaking workers in Singapore, Taiwan and China,” said a U.S. chief executive at a major Bangkok-based company who declined to identified.
“Thailand’s labor isn’t as cheap as it used to be so basic manufacturing jobs are going to start moving away, too.”
Thailand is a manufacturing base for automakers such as General Motors Co (GM.N) and a major petrochemical hub, but costs are rising. The average monthly factory wage in 2010 was $263, below China’s $303 but above the Philippines at $212, Indonesia at $182, Vietnam at $107 and Cambodia at $101, according to a survey by the Japan External Trade Organization.
It is unclear if Abhisit’s education plan will boost him at the polls, but the issue cuts to the heart of Thailand’s polarizing and sometimes-violent five-year political crisis.
A shoddy education reinforces complaints voiced by poor, rural Thais of political, social and economic injustice -- frustrations that erupted last year into deadly street protests.
Schools in Bangkok are generally more modern than in the rural north and northeast, bastions of the opposition Puea Thai Party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Rural leaders also complain that a Bangkok-designed curriculum glosses over Thailand’s unique rural heritage, adding to simmering feelings of disenfranchisement.
Decha Premruedeelert, an adviser to the mayor of Khon Kaen, a city about 500 km (300 miles) northeast of Bangkok, is experimenting with an alternative: keep the curriculum, but supplement it with workshops attuned to local needs.
But the opposition’s record is also patchy. Governments led by Thaksin in 2001-2006 promised public schools more autonomy, but that ran into resistance from the Ministry of Education.
Puea Thai leaders say they will increase spending on school resources, technology and scholarships, but critics say this misses the fundamental issue of how teachers are trained and what is taught.
Thailand is already among the world’s top education spenders relative to its size, allocating roughly 20 percent of its annual budget to education, according to the central bank.
The country spent the equivalent of 4 percent of GDP on education in 2009, above Singapore’s 3.1 percent, according to the Swiss-based Institute of Management Development (IMD), but Singapore ranks 13th in education performance and Thailand 47th.
Literacy has been consistently high since the 1970s and was 94 percent in 2010.
But while about 71 percent of students go on to secondary school in the country of 67 million people, just 18 percent finish college, according to Direk Patmasiriwat, a researcher at Thailand Development Research Institute, a think tank.
And a Thai college degree is no easy ticket to success. In 2010 rankings of world universities by Quacquarelli Symonds, a provider of guides to higher education, Thailand’s top school, Chulalongkorn University, was ranked 180.
Compare that to the University of Hong Kong’s ranking of 23 or National University of Singapore’s 31.
One result: Thailand produces a workforce with some of the world’s weakest English-language skills. The IMD ranks Thailand 54th of 56 countries globally for English proficiency, the second-lowest in Asia. Singapore was third and Malaysia 28th.
Analysts attribute the inability to overhaul education to bureaucratic inertia, a deficit of ideas on how to improve the curriculum and poor teacher recruitment and training.
When an education reform committee proposed English as Thailand’s second official language last July to boost its economy and foster a more global outlook, the Education Ministry rejected the idea, saying it could create “misunderstandings” that Thailand had been colonized.
“If you look at history textbooks, it’s littered with myths about ancient warriors and old-time enmities with neighboring countries. It’s still driven by nationalism without a global perspective on how Thailand fits into the world,” said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian who has campaigned to improve the social science curriculum.
Back at the Bangkok school, when the bell rang for recess, the 14-year-old boy was told to stay back and read from a text on Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, an historian who died in 1943 and is revered as the father of Thailand’s education system. The teacher asked the boy to re-read a passage in which the prince explains how Thai people originated from southern China between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Looking up from the text, he asked: “How did he find out where our ancestors came from? Did he go there and talk to people in Yunnan and Sichuan?” The teacher brushed it aside, instead telling him to continue reading to improve his speed.
The school declined to allow Reuters to name the pupil.
An incentive system for teachers is also regarded as a problem, placing a greater premium on administrative duties than student performance, and giving little reason -- or training -- to move beyond basic rote-learning teaching methods.
Nearly half of Abhisit’s six-year education plan would be spent on developing “a new breed of teachers.” But the ministry hasn’t explained what they would do differently.
“Those who want to stretch their students’ imagination have limited skills, so they stick to how their predecessors taught for generations,” Education Minister Chinnavorn Boonyakiat told Reuters. “Teaching innovation requires a different mindset.”
Inoirb Regel, a World Bank education specialist, said Thai universities offer narrow fields of study, making it difficult for students to adapt to the global economy.
“The country’s GDP has risen disproportionately to wage growth. It is one major cause of discontent,” said Somkiat Tangkitvanich, an economist at Thailand Development Research Institute. “That’s partly because educational training available does not match skill sets needed to succeed in the more dynamic labor market today.”
Editing by Jason Szep and John Chalmers