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Living outside the comfort zone

Bangkok Christian College's decision to buck tradition and ditch school uniforms could be an important first step forward in reforming education

It was Eleanor Roosevelt, sage diplomat and America's longest-running first lady, who uttered the famous quote: "Do one thing every day that scares you."

How I love that quote. Whenever anybody asks me about my life philosophy, which isn't that often, I refer to that quote. As long as we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, life remains challenging, edgy and indeed a little scary.

This week Thailand experimented with something that pushes its boundaries, in what I believe is the best way possible.

I'm not talking about the legalisation of marijuana or same-sex unions, both of which are fantastic recent strides forward in Thailand's road to civility. This is about education.

There was a news story this week that was eclipsed by the Saudi teenager trying to escape her insidious, oppressive culture via Suvarnabhumi airport.

It involved Thai students at one private high school who have been permitted to dispense with their school uniforms.

Starting this week, students of Bangkok Christian College in Silom have been allowed to wear what they like every Tuesday. Instead of their regulation uniform of white shirt and shorts, they can choose how they dress. And by the looks of the media photographs, students have taken to the edict quite well.

Last Tuesday the boys at BCC (it's an all-boys school) came to school dressed in all sorts of colours and trends. One chose to wear a bunny outfit as a joke, but they generally looked well-dressed and smart -- as smart as awkward teenage boys can be.

Westerners may not appreciate how pivotal a moment this is in Thai education. Wearing a uniform is so entrenched here, it is almost unthinkable to dispense with it. Thai students not only have to wear their uniforms, they have to wear them impeccably. Added to this are the mandatory short back and sides hair cut for boys, and bobs for girls.

Expressing creativity and individuality? This, too, is almost unthinkable. It is a massive step forward in the education process.

The BCC edict is officially an "experiment" in their students' development. They're doing it for six weeks, which brings them to the end of the school year.

The objectives are to see if students would be happier, and whether their sense of expression and social skills would improve.

According to the school director, Suphakit Jitklongsap, former students and parents were split in their opinions on the new rule. Of course they were. It is hard to break with tradition.

"If found to be more harm than good, it will not continue," he said almost a little too quickly, as if to appease the dinosaurs of Thai tradition looming over his head. Director Suphakit need not spend any sleepless nights on that one.

Research carried out around the world supports the fact that contrary to the beliefs of educators and parents (and, at BCC, former pupils), uniforms have no effect on student grades.

It can be summed up by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, which in 2011 found there was no correlation between uniforms and grades, although they did appear to contribute to improved attendance.

This finding is almost universal. The University of Houston found attendance went up with uniforms, albeit a meagre 0.3 to 0.4%. Grades did not. An Ohio study of six schools that adopted uniforms found that while there was no impact on grades, graduation rates rose 11%. There was a school in 2007 where one class wore uniforms while another didn't. There was no difference in grades.

So we can safely discard the notion that uniforms are good for grades. If uniforms had any positive effect, wouldn't all those Harvard or Stanford undergraduates be wandering around in them?

Another argument for uniforms is that it levels the playing field. Rich or poor, students are all the same when they have to wear a uniform. This is especially favourable for poorer students, although the economic argument does not figure too prominently at BCC.

The US's Education Department found that wearing uniforms decreased the risk of violence. What a classic example of research findings travelling badly. It is the exact opposite in Thailand.

Inner city vocational students seek out, maim and even kill students of other vocational colleges. And the best way to seek out that enemy is via their school uniform.

So what is this really about?

It is more a question of the Thai psyche. It reflects the sense of belonging to a group so ingrained in Thais. There is a desire to wear a uniform so that one's own individuality takes a back seat to the social group, whether it be a student, soldier, police officer, bus conductor, security guard, maid or civil servant. When we all look the same, we belong, and we don't have to think for ourselves.

This is the reason why it is so vitally necessary for the BCC experiment to succeed, and not just for the happiness of the boys there. This is about setting a precedent for the entire country. Belonging to a group is good; but these are new times, and they are times that are ingrained in innovation, the child of free and original thought.

In these modern times, the trend in education is moving away from uniformity. The new trend is towards finding and fostering differences between students. The idea of a "one size fits all" education is old and hoary and, as those of us who have gone through the system know well, very unfair. All the top-rating countries in the field of education are doing this.

Thailand educators look towards Finland as the ideal country for education, and they do it for good reason. Forty years ago Finland put a huge chunk of its national budget into education. It radically altered its educational landscape and sent it shooting to the top of the global education charts.

Their system moves away from competition among students and instead isolates the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, and evaluates them accordingly. There are no national tests. Education is decentralised.

Most recently, they have dispensed with the concept of separate periods for maths, science, history and social studies. Instead they are going to start "phenomenon teaching", which stresses projects that last a couple of weeks, determined by students and based on students' individual talents.

There is no emphasis on school uniforms.

This should be comforting news for Director Suphakit who will continue to run into opposition from more conservative sectors opposing his decree for traditional reasons and ruining the uniformity of the school.

He must grin and bear it.

But BCC has always been a bit of a trailblazer. This is the Thai school that was the first to teach English in English. I'm serious. They decided to use English as the medium of teaching English. Yes, dear reader… that is considered a radical idea here.

When put in that perspective, it is not hard to imagine Eleanor Roosevelt this week nodding contentedly (and angelically) towards Director Suphakit. The BCC director has not just done something that scares himself. It scares the entire nation. For the better, of course.

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