English Literacy just the Tip of the Iceberg

Originally published in the Bangkok Post on Saturday 21st April 2018

An ambitious initiative being planned by the Thai Ministry of Education to place thousands of young foreign teachers in rural schools across Thailand has the potential to dramatically improve English language abilities. Still, quality control is likely to prove problematic, as is culture shock. In addition, students in rural communities face a myriad of educational challenges far beyond foreign language proficiency.

National standards in English language ability across Thailand remain shockingly low. Annual reports from the Swiss-based education company English First and Thailand’s national assessment, the O-NET, provide compelling evidence that English language ability in Thailand has stagnated while the ability of students in neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam, is improving significantly.

Low national average scores in English proficiency are a serious concern. At elite university demonstration schools, well-established English programme schools and other large urban schools in the most economically advanced provincial centers, the majority of students have a reasonable level of English, sufficient to communicate in written and verbal English. In contrast, Thailand’s rural schools are rarely able to employ qualified English teachers, and despite foreign languages being a core curriculum subject, students at these schools usually lack the ability to hold even a basic conversation in English.

Giving these students the opportunity to study with native English-speaking teachers would be an important step towards raising these standards, and it is encouraging to see an ambitious project being designed specifically for these often neglected learners.

During the Ministry of Education meeting on 13th March, which discussed this initiative, the MoE expressed their intentions to work with TEFL organisations and international schools to recruit the young teachers, most of whom would be mostly gap year students or recent graduates. If successful, the project would begin implementation during the 2019 academic year.

Still, sourcing thousands of low-paid or volunteer native speakers who are truly committed to improving the English skills of their students and are equipped with the basic skills to implement will be problematic.

Teacher recruitment and turnover at rural schools are a huge challenge. School leaders in rural areas find it extremely difficult to fill teaching vacancies, often relying on inexperienced new graduates who only remain in the position for one academic year. Teachers in small schools are

usually required to teach a full range of subjects, often covering academic content which they are not qualified to teach, such as foreign languages. Of these, English is the most important ‘gateway language,’ opening up opportunities to students from depressed socio-economic backgrounds.

Introducing native English speakers into rural schools may help level the playing field so that rural students may compete with urban students in English ability. However, ensuring that these foreign teachers are comfortable operating in rural Thai areas – a challenge for even urban Thais – will be difficult. In addition, racial stereotyping of non-White native speakers of English, including Indians and Africans, some of whom may come from fellow developing countries, may mean that villagers may not get the most qualified or most adaptable candidates. Additionally, expatriate retirees who are used to living in Thailand may chafe at being excluded from the opportunity to help out in their local village schools. A slow, careful rollout of the scheme, building in flexibility, will be essential.

Unfortunately, the dire standards of English language teaching in rural schools is not the only burden disadvantaging these children. In fact, an over-concentration on English skills masks a more worrying issue – the vastness of Thailand’s educational inequalities in terms of basic skills. The UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report clearly indicates that urban students significantly out-perform rural students in literacy, mathematics and education completion rates. Meanwhile the World Bank’s report, ‘Thailand’s Economic Monitor’, has described the disparity between education in rural areas and urban areas a national concern.

The 2015 OECD PISA results indicate increasing, not decreasing, inequality. Thai children in small rural schools are falling further behind students in urban schools. In science, students from large urban schools are over one year ahead of children from rural schools, and in literacy the gap is even wider. And, English skills are not the main determinant of success – Thai language ability is. Yet, it is estimated that half of the students in rural schools are functionally illiterate in Thai.

Furthermore, poor early childhood development has a detrimental impact on the one million children attending small rural schools. A lack of economic development in the regions means that in many rural areas, and particularly in Northeast Thailand, parents move to Bangkok, and other large cities, for work, leaving their children behind with grandparents who are often ill equipped to provide the necessary care and cognitive stimulation young children need. The lack of provision for cognitive development at home – most of which lack sufficient toys or books – is compounded by a lack of access to quality early child development centers in rural areas, leaving thousands of children ill prepared to begin formal learning at the age of six. Not only are rural children lacking the foundations to be school ready at six years of age, but thousands remain at home when they should be starting formal education, with only 65% of 6 year olds from poor rural areas beginning school in Primary 1.

Just recently, a letter from a provincial governor in the Northeast mentioned introducing a programme to ‘make people less stupid’. While embodying stereotypes of rural northeastern Thai Lao people possessing low intelligence, there is a genuine need to enhance the cognitive functions of rural Thais. Providing better Thai-language training by leveraging the mother tongue is required. Expanding basic access to quality early childhood development services is critical. These centers must provide families with information and guidelines on nutrition, including sufficient iodine; healthcare, including deworming; and child development; in line with government policies and programmes introduced in the 1990’s. By comparison, hiring native English speakers is a luxury.

Children at schools across rural Thailand have been neglected by policy makers for too long. Raising the standards of English proficiency in the regions is a welcome start, but these students require much more than a few lessons with a foreign English teacher. These children are not being given an opportunity to develop skills which will enable them to find meaningful employment. Neglecting the needs of children in rural areas will escalate inequalities, worsen socio-political cleavages, and undermine the progress the country’s leaders hope to achieve from their ambitious ‘Thailand 4.0’ economic model.

By Daniel Maxwell and Peerasit Kamnuansilpa

 

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