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You’re never too old to learn (and you’re never too young for a test)

To judge from the cracks and potholes, the soi hasn’t been resurfaced in decades.  Maybe not since the emergency makeover when a daily motorcade of Mercs began transporting royal offspring to the school nearby.

The school itself has had many lavish refurbishments in that time.  They are boasted about in the posters on the walls outside.  There are the announcements of programmes, including the obligatory ‘international programme’ that will produce future citizens who are at the same time intensely patriotic and homogenously globalized.  And there are the dates of the admissions exams for these programmes, and the cramming courses for these exams.

The school helpfully issues a guide to the measurement and evaluation of children in what the school calls their ‘pre-school’ programme.

(Now there’s a good first lesson in the wonderful fantasy world that is the Thai education system.  You are ‘pre-school’ even after you’ve starting to go to school.  The lesson must be that school can make anything mean anything.)

The evaluation system tests, twice a year, ‘basic knowledge’, ‘learning development’ and ‘desirable characteristics’.  This sounds OK until you look at the details.

Basic knowledge is divided into ‘integrated skills’, which are traditional school subjects, including Thai language, and ‘language skills’, which is English language.  Learning development involves just one thing: ‘world-saving activities’.  And the desirable characteristics include ‘a love of the nation, religions and monarchy’ (#1), ‘living sufficiently’ (#5) and ‘a love of being Thai’ (#7).  ‘Being brave enough to express oneself’ sneaks in last at #9, presumably because by then the children know on which ideas they can be brave enough to express themselves.

The rest is a detailed computation of weighting and interpretation of scores.  This is all predicated on the assumption that there is some way of accurately measuring the ability of 5-year-olds.

I wonder what this school would make of the furore now raging in the English school system about government attempts to bring in a test for children in reception classes, of the same age as the Thai pre-school schoolchildren.

The UK government, long obsessed with management by targets, wants to find out if early years education works.  So it has set about trying to test early learners.  A voluntary trial of 3 evaluation systems was devised by different educational testing agencies.  The most popular was one based entirely on observation of the children.

Perhaps predictably, that was ditched in favour of a 4th untested system of a one-off test, not observation.  Bids are being solicited for the contract to develop the test.

One outfit that won’t be bidding is the university centre that developed the observation-based evaluation.  Their reason is simple.  The proposed test, they say would be ‘verging on the immoral’.

Until they are 7 or 8 years old, children simply don’t understand what tests are about.  Younger children don’t recognize that the purpose of the exercise is to get the right answer.  They might give you the right answer if they know it.  Or they might think that this game is more fun if they say something else.  But not necessarily because they don’t know.

The proposed test has been linked to the government’s desire to ‘toughen up’ what kids should be doing in their first experience of school.  More reading; more sums.  And not so much farting about in the sandpit.

A much criticized government report calling for this prompted a public letter of protest from experts in early years education, teachers and parents.  1700 of them.  All warning the UK government not to do what Thai schools do as a matter of course.  But then again, this was only the view of experts in the field.

Perhaps the Thai school behind the potholes and the flashy banners lacks the expertise and is unaware of basic principles of child psychology.

It is, after all, only a Demonstration School, linked to a Faculty of Education, which contains supposedly the best informed people in the Thai education world.

About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).