Thailand’s Shadow Education
Driving past the Chiang Mai District Office in the old moat the other day and seeing students wandering around late at night, I remembered with a shudder the days when I too used to spend my afterschool hours in this area, often studying deep into the night at one tutorial class or another. This area of Chiang Mai is known for its cluster of afterschool tutorials, where parents spend hard earned cash to send their children for extra hours of tutorials afterschool and at weekends to ensure their placements at Thailand’s best universities. At the time, I didn’t think there was anything strange about taking extra courses on the classes I was already studying at school, but as I drove past the other night, I began to wonder why it was necessary for so many Thai students to have to go through this process of learning the same subject twice and for their parents to pay steep fees for the privilege.
These private study classes are known locally as ‘shadow education’. The metaphor came about after these classes began mimicking the mainstream school system. If a new curriculum or new exam is introduced in the education system, it also shows up in these private tutoring schools. According to ThaiRath in 2014, 60.2% of Thai high school students said that they took these courses because they struggled to understand what was being taught in schools and that what was being taught in school didn’t correspond with what was on entrance exams, unlike what was taught in these tutorials. Which begs the question of why teachers at school are not teaching towards exams and why these tutorials are privy to information schools aren’t?
According to Pandit Thailand, university entrance exams began back in 1973 when the government centralised the university system, enabling students to select their top universities and courses they wanted to study before being offered a place dependant on the entrance exam. This system did away with GPA scores, meaning no matter what grades you acquired in high-school, only the entrance exam actually counted.
This was the same year supplementary tutoring schools really took off in Thailand.
As can be expected, the system broke down as students began to pay less attention in school as their grades were essentially useless. It was also possible for students as young as 16 to take the university entrance exam, entering university at a very young age, often at the pressure of proud parents. In order for them to start their university careers so young, parents would pay steep fees for the best tutorial colleges, bypassing the school syllabus and system entirely.
It took until 1999 for this system to be replaced, re-incorporating GPA scores. However, by that time the foundations for supplementary tutoring classes had already been laid. Over the next few decades, a number of large changes to the system have been made, each time increasing the number of exams required to be taken by high school students seeking a place at university.
Today students are required to take a range of tests including O-net, GAT, PAT as well as Educational Testing Service in the seven major subjects. However, what is most pertinent is that for the majority of schools, the curriculum studied doesn’t properly prepare students for these exams, either by not focusing on the right subjects or not giving students the tools to be able to solve problems. On the other hand, teachers at tutorials focus all their attention on past exams, extrapolating the data to anticipate future exams, which bear far greater results.
Professor Chanintorn Pensute, a professor at the Faculty of Political Science, Chiang Mai University says that the private tutoring trend in Thai society has come about because of two main factors; “Firstly, there is a great disparity in education amongst the schools in Thailand,” she explained. “Private schools with huge amounts of funds tend to have better quality teaching, whereas schools in rural areas have constantly lower qualifications.” This in turn leads to fear, the second factor. “Poor students fear that if they don’t get placed in top public universities they will become a burden on their parents who can’t afford private universities, so it is considered perhaps cheaper in the long term to pay for extra tutorials in order to gain entrance to top public universities.”
Nicha Piyapongsakorn, a researcher in Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) agrees. “The demand for private tutoring is caused by inadequate knowledge provided in schools which does not meet the needs for those competing in the entrance exam system.”
The question that arises is therefore; why do schools not teach the required topics? Are there only a small number of schools that actually do this, or do universities not provide enough information about their entrance exams? Or is there something more sinister going on…
The Big Business of Education
Some of Chiang Mai’s tutorial institutions are so famous they have branches in Bangkok and other provinces around the country, often teaching via video stream in both mixed and private classes. In fact, this is such big business that some tutors have near celebrity status, with high school students queuing up to be tutored by Ajarn this and Ajarn that.
According to Longtunman.com, private tutoring is valued at around 8 billion baht in Thailand each year, a number which has been consistently increasing since 2012. The income of one of the most renowned tutoring schools by the name Wannasorn Education Limited (Chemistry by Ajarn Ou) earned a whopping 113 million baht in 2015 rising to a mind boggling 342 million baht in 2016. In Chiang Mai University, university students teach hopeful high school students in private classes that cost up to 350 baht an hour. We are not talking peanuts.
It may then come as little surprise that school teachers moonlighting as tutors have often been accused of withholding tools, information and theories which are necessary for students’ exams, only to offer the missing subjects in extra-curricular tutorials — for a fee. “Teachers often withhold information only to teach them in private classes after school to earn some extra money,” Chanintorn revealed. “They earn so little, that they must find extra money somewhere, but what happens is those who don’t invest in these classes are set up to fail.”
Phudit Fooanun is a matthayom 6 student who uses private tutors as often as 4-5 times a week. “The knowledge I need for my exams is almost exclusively taught in extra classes or from private tutors,” he explained. Phudit is one of the many students paying an average of 2,000 to 3,000 baht a month for extra tutoring, working out at around half the cost of a term at university. The months leading up to the exams, he admits spending in excess of 7,000 baht to ensure he passes.
“Teachers at school seem to teach because it is their duty, but lack any deep understanding of our needs as students,” Phudit explained. “Teachers in school only teach the basic knowledge of each topic and when the smart kids in class understand, the teachers would just assume that the rest do too and leave the other students behind. If we don’t understand, that is when they invite us to go to extra classes we have to pay for. At least private tutors pay more attention to students individually.”
Rungrawee Anuntakan, a private tutor in mathematics seconds this idea, saying in a recent interview that “students come to study [in her class] since the teachers in school do not teach well enough and they hardly get to ask any questions in class.”
A National Educational Crisis
The Shadow Education trend reflects many problems of not just Thai students but the nation as a whole. According to Professor Chanintorn, “students should be able to develop their potential and figure out their true selves. But attending private tutoring classes decreases the level of creativity. Creativity is what people in our country lack but it is what drives the nation.”
Nicha from TDRI thinks that “private tutoring takes away a lot of time from students; they study in school for eight hours, then take time travelling to tutoring schools to study some more. I think that a complete human being is not all about studying. One should learn to take care of oneself, exercise, and enhance knowledge that widens their worldview.” She continues by saying that “nowadays, both schools and private tutoring are lecture based, which narrows down what students learn, but there is so much more to explore in real life.”
Considering the disparity in the Thai education system, Professor Chanintorn suggests that there should be a better process in recruiting qualified teachers, through observation and regular assessment. Also, teachers nowadays have a lot of duties that are not related to teaching for instance attending training courses and meetings, visiting students’ homes, arranging school events, etc. “Unless these burdens decrease, teachers will never be able to focus more on teaching their students.” Not to mention the appallingly low salaries most Thai teachers are on.
However, Nicha says that private tutoring is not the cause of the problem, placing the blame squarely on the Thai education system. “Private tutoring is like a symptom of a disease. This disease is schools with unequal opportunities. As long as there is a school hierarchy of ‘which school is better’ then there will always be competition that forces students into a life of study and nothing much else. Parents should be able to send their children to any school without worrying that the school has good quality teachers or not.” Nicha also agrees with Professor Chanintorn that teachers should have fewer administrative burdens and should spend more time developing good teaching and building relationships with their students. “The education system should be flexible, meaning that students should be able to choose what they want to learn, in both science and art subjects,” Nicha suggests, while also revealing that the TDRI is currently proposing reform in the education department under the name “Education Reform Sandbox” that aims at implementing good educational innovations within a particular area. The aim of this system is to then take this model to all areas of Thailand.
While nobody is calling for an outright ban of private tutorials, it is becoming obvious to those working in the industry that something must be done to reduce the number of students who feel it is necessary to attend in order to succeed. Our schools have a duty to produce educated students, without the help of external forces. As long as we focus our efforts on a dated, lecture based teaching style, then our students will always come out unfulfilled, uneducated and lack the creativity and critical though that this country so desperately needs. And the richer private tutorials benefiting from this national flaw will be.