Some rules need breaking

The first day of 'dress as you wish' proved extremely popular and, despite the professed fears of conservatives, ended without fights or envy. (Photo by Somchai Poomlard)

While the Bangkok Christian College (BCC) "casual Tuesday" policy may have brought about friction between those who support and oppose the idea of letting secondary students dress down once a week, it deserves credit for challenging and questioning one of the country's draconian school rules and rituals.

This pilot project is, in fact, a small but meaningful step towards broader and greater education reform.

Opponents of the project, including the Education Ministry's Office of the Private Education Commission (Opec), have cautioned that casual clothing could bring about a lack of proper discipline, a financial burden on parents to pay for clothes as well as "other social problems".

But they have to accept that the project has already achieved one of its goals: Happy students. On Tuesday, students at the all-boys BCC showed how happy they are with the new policy.

The project aims to make the school a happier place for its students as well as promoting their creativity and respect for diversity. At the same time, the school plans to measure how this policy positively or negatively affects students' academic performance.

Of course, the BCC is not the average Thai school, but a long-established prestigious private school where students can afford casual clothes. Unlike public schools, it is not subject to the Education Ministry's strict uniform regulation, which has been in place since 1939 to mainly promote frugality and discipline.

The dress code served the old times well when the country's poverty rate was higher. But as time goes by, most families will likely not find it hard to afford casual clothing. In fact, uniforms bring about a financial burden on their part.

But the BCC is still under the supervision of Opec. Yesterday, the agency submitted a letter to the school informing it to "reconsider" the policy. The Opec's response reflects the typical mindset of policymakers at the ministry, many of whom may say they want to promote student-centred learning but at the same time have shown they never wanted to listen to students' needs. It is no wonder its education reform has never been successful.

Meanwhile, it is questionable whether the uniform code has achieved its quest to promote and instil discipline among students, especially given that Thais are not the world's most disciplined or law-abiding citizens. Such awareness needs to be embedded in them through the process of learning that allows them to think for themselves.

And if we cannot let students have leeway with deciding what to wear, how can we encourage them to make decisions or form sound judgements on other complex and challenging academic or social issues?

Apart from the uniform code, the performance of teachers and students at Thai public schools has been bogged down by other unnecessary rules and rituals that have done little to enhance teaching and learning ability. These include strict hairstyles and the morning outdoor gathering that sees students lined up to sing the national anthem, pray and listen to daily lectures.

As a result, our education system has nurtured submissive learners, rather than innovative and creative people for the future workforce.

Letting go of the uniform code and other rules and rituals could have offered students a sense of greater freedom, paving ways for them to come up with critical thinking, creativity and innovation. If educators and policymakers cannot relinquish such mundane regulations, how can they embrace much-needed reform for the country's education system?

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