Former UNESCO director says Thailand must move quickly to match ASEAN rivals in education


On the evening of June 5, Pattaya Mail sat down with the former director of UNSECO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Sheldon Shaeffer, who retired in 2008. He worked for UNESCO for a decade and has lived in Southeast Asia for 20 years.

For the past five years, he has been a consultant for Education Development Advisory Services, which provides educational consultancy services in Southeast Asia and East Africa in inclusive education, child-friendly schools, early-childhood care, language policies, and multi-grade teaching.

Shaeffer sat down for an interview with the Pattaya Mail to discuss Thailand’s educational system and prospects for the future under a new government regime.

Sheldon Shaeffer, former director of UNSECO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.Sheldon Shaeffer, former director of UNSECO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.

PM: What do you think about the current political and economic situation in Thailand?

Shaeffer: I think the situation had reached a point where it was increasingly difficult for the various sides of the debate to find a compromise and a way out of the impasse. As a Canadian, I believe democracy is the best form of government, and I’m looking forward to the time when Thailand can return to a truly democratic form of government. This will promote the stability of the government and the economy and therefore be good not only for the people of Thailand, but also for attracting investors and tourists to Thailand.

Thailand must project an image of being a safe and secure place, especially a place like Pattaya. It’s good that the curfew has now ended, at least in Pattaya, because Pattaya will then once again be seen as an attractive place for people to come. I find it unfortunate that so many countries have issued travel alerts regarding what’s happening here in terms of safety and security; it only makes things more difficult for the tourism industry. Governments might disagree with recent political developments in Thailand, but that doesn’t mean that Thailand should be identified as an unsafe place.

PM: What would you like for the new Thai government to do for the Thai people?

Sheldon: I’m highly interested in education, so I think that’s important. The government provides 25 percent of its annual budget towards education, one of the highest percentages in the world.

But about 10 percent of children in Thailand are not enrolled in primary schools and, by the age of 17, only 60 percent remain in school. And when you look at the final outcome of what the students in Thailand achieve, it’s quite low. And if you look at international tests of achievement, Thailand is near the bottom of the list.

For example, there’s something called the English Proficiency Index, which is an attempt to test how well countries are achieving in English, which is important not only for global trade, but also for ASEAN integration. In this Index, out of 60 countries, Thailand ranks 55th and Vietnam is 28th. In another international test, Thailand ranks 50 out of 60 countries regarding mathematics and 48th in science and reading.

So again, Thailand is considerably lower than Singapore, Vietnam, and many other countries. This is not going to make Thailand competitive with other countries in terms of education, especially in English.

PM: So Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia have better education systems than Thailand?

Shaeffer: In many areas, yes, and Thailand has to find a way to make up that disadvantage by trying to improve the quality of its education system.

It needs more comprehensive early-childhood care and education starting with better health and nutrition from birth, greater use of the children’s mother tongue in the early years of primary school, which helps children more easily master literacy in Thai, better trained and better paid teachers, and a greater focus on critical thinking, creativity, and entrepreneurial skills rather than rote memorization. And it needs to focus more on making educational opportunities more equal between Bangkok and remote, rural areas; between children who speak Thai at home and those that don’t; between children with disabilities and those without; and between the rich and the poor.

Many children are not well supported by either the government or their families, especially in poor districts. Studying in Bangkok provides better advantages because of greater government support, but I think that schools in remote places should be given the same opportunity. More support for scholarships, for example, will improve the chance for all children in Thailand to get better quality education and so reduce the disparities that now exist in Thai society.

PM: Regarding the economy, what changes would you like to see when the government is sorted out its issues?

Shaeffer: I think there has to be a restoration of confidence, first inside of Thailand so that the economy is stable and can grow. That would be more attractive to investors outside of Thailand as well. People want to build factories, open new businesses, invest in property, etc., in a climate that assures stability and security for their investments.

This will actually become more important after 2015 when full ASEAN economic integration is launched. That will mean greater competition between Thailand and other ASEAN countries for investments. As other ASEAN countries gain better-trained professionals and skilled laborers, Thailand will have to convince investors that it still offers considerable benefits as opposed to other ASEAN countries.

Thailand was once a leading country of ASEAN, economically and educationally, but there is now much more competition from not only Singapore but also Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and more. So Thailand has to work hard to get back to the top.

PM: So you are retired here in Pattaya or in Bangkok, what are you doing now?

Sheldon: I meant to be retired, but it’s better to keep a bit busy than to be bored. I am still doing some work for UN agencies, international non-government organizations, and other institutions, writing papers, making presentations at conferences, and doing evaluations. My field is education, so I’m trying to keep myself busy by focusing on that profession.