Bangkok Post

For students, first the cram, then the crush

- Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sunday was Car-Free Day, but traffic in the Muang Thong area on Chaeng Watthana Road was bumper to bumper from 5am. Serves them right, you might say when contemplat­ing that those motorists were insensitiv­e toward the environmen­t and crazy enough to get up and drive at dawn on a Sunday.

But since I was one of the people trapped in that paralysed traffic, may I present my case?

Actually, you might need no explanatio­n from me if your kids were among the 90,000 Mathayom 6 students competing for 2,900 university places at Srinakhari­nwirot University in its directrecr­uitment exam, held at the Muang Thong Thani Impact complex on Sunday. My daughter was one of them.

The kids came from all parts of the country. Many came with their parents, who had to find a place near the exam venue to stay the night before, hire a van, or drive there themselves to make sure their kids arrived in time.

Add two people to each student on average, and imagine the commotion there.

I thought I would have an easier time because we live near the complex. But I ended up stuck in the traffic for nearly two hours. Many mums and kids abandoned their taxis and walked. Others hailed motorcycle taxis. I could barely breathe.

Like most parents there, we had been warned of the nightmare ahead. For example, if we wanted our kids to have lunch and some rest, we should get food ready for them beforehand. If they had to compete with tens of thousands of other students to buy food, they might not get to eat lunch at all.

‘‘This is really a stressful time,’’ said one mother from Suphan Buri. Tell me about it. I looked around where I sat and felt utterly depressed. On the floor, parents lay about sleeping, probably exhausted from the long night’s drive.

Beside them, however, were baskets of food ready for their children.

‘‘This system is killing our kids and us as their parents,’’ the Suphan Buri mum said. Tell me about it again. Yet, I have to admit that as exhausted and frustrated as we parents were, we’re among the more privileged ones in this cut-throat and costly system.

To start with, the exams go beyond what is taught in class, so we need to be able to afford expensive tutorial classes.

Each faculty may also require additional proficienc­y tests, meaning more tutorials and more expenses.

‘‘At least the kids here have some chance of making it in the system,’’ said another parent, a teacher at a secondary school in Ayutthaya province.

‘‘Where I teach, 80% of the students come from broken families. The kids stay with grandparen­ts who are too tired or cannot communicat­e with teenagers.

‘‘Drugs and teen pregnancy are common. That happens when the kids fail in the school system and cannot see any future ahead.’’ Indeed. For many students, this Muang Thong ordeal is just one of the many direct recruitmen­t exams they have to take before the central admission exam is held in February.

It is no longer possible for students to sit only the central admission exam. Many faculties, including medical schools, only accept students through direct recruitmen­t because the central system is of such poor quality.

It was ironic that on the same day as the Muang Thong exam — the epitome, for me, of what is wrong with our education system — a conference on education reform chaired by Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng was taking place a few kilometres away.

‘‘Policy changes so often that teachers don’t know what will come next,’’ one parent said.

‘‘If it’s still a top-down order and the changes cannot connect the students with jobs, it can’t help the majority of kids who fall through the cracks,’’ another commented.

On our way home, my daughter was still studying textbooks for her exam.

‘‘The Bali bombing was the work of the JI movement, which is behind the southern violence in Thailand,’’ she read aloud.

‘‘That’s not true,’’ I protested, referring to the southern violence part.

‘‘That’s what the textbook says, that’s what we have to memorise as an answer,’’ said my daughter.

I’m certain the Muang Thong ordeal will continue next year. The Education Ministry will remain a top-down dinosaur. And sadly, the education system my daughter is trying to master shows no signs of improving either.

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