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            Both for the respect of local culture and for a better learning achievement of pupils, I would like to propose the introduction of bilingual education in the Southernmost provinces. Children should start learning basic skills in reading and writing as well as basic subjects such as mathematics and social science in their mother tongue: in this case Melayu thin Thai (Local - Malay in Thailand). Later on, knowledge and skills acquired in mother tongue would smoothly be transferred and developed using national language. In fact, rather unofficially and on the encouragement of parents, pupils are learning four languages: Thai, standard Malay, English and Arabic (for Al - Quran reading). Parents also ask the children to learn Islam both in Pondok schools, say in the evening, and in Tadika schools, say during weekends. Obviously, the demands on children are very high and many are too tired to achieve full result.

            One can also observe that the recruitment for state schools has considerably dropped while private Islamic-cum-regular schools are full to the brim. For me, I see two emerging issues in this tendency. First, as pupils in Islamic-cum-regular schools are all Muslim, the schooling of Islamic and Buddhist members of the same community is now divided along religious line. Friendship and harmonious mingling of the youths will be more difficult resulting, in the longer run, into more separation than integration based on unity of nations (samaanachan). Secondly, the parents are facing with dilemma: on the one hand they want their children to have the best schooling such as the one provided by best public schools elsewhere in the country, and on the other hand they want their children to have more Islamic studies than what being provided in public schools in the South but maybe less Islamic studies than what being provided in private schools. For many, the private schools may not offer the best solution but still are better than public schools as far their religious needs are concerned.

            There is a clear room for improvement of public schooling. This should be done, not with the purpose of reducing the importance of private schools that continue to serve many, but in the spirit of offering options to serve diversified needs and providing quality education in fair competitive manners. In fact, education should be pupil - centered: they should be able to learn effectively and have enough recreation.

            In the past, complaints have been made about public schools insensitivity towards Islam such as the non - separation of cooking facilities and personnel for children, the dressing code for female teachers and pupils, and the mix seating for male and female pupils in classrooms. Such complaints can be redressed and in fact I think they have more or less subsided. It is however more difficult to change the attitude of teachers and school administrators to be more open minded towards local needs. Only with the respect of diversity and dignity of different cultures, the education reform would then bear the expected fruits of harmony and schooling quality.

            I would like to make the following proposals, more for the sake of further discussion than offering a ready - made answer. To cope with both religious and language requirements, schooling should be on six days a week with the clear understanding with the parents that, with their needs being responded to, they will let their children's Sundays be for recreation only.

            Primary public schools should teach three languages: Thai (using Melayu thin Thai as medium of instruction at the beginning), standard Malay and English. In secondary schools, the learning and teaching of Arabic language should be provided as an option.

            The learning and teaching of Islam should either be on Saturday or at the end of each school day. In this manner, non - Islamic pupils have options to learn their own religion or be home during these hours. Private Islamic-cum-regular schools are providing rather extensive curriculum in Islamic studies occupying up to half of schooling hours. Public schools need not do that much but enough to cover main subject matters needed to form a person to be a good Muslim. I learnt that there are four important subjects that need to be taught: Tauhid (Unity of God), Fiqh (Religious Practices), Al-Quran, and Hadith (Prophet's words). I am sure that Islamic scholars can help develop a good curriculum that is up to the standard of schooling in other Islamic countries.

            What are the steps to be taken? I think we should further discuss this kind of idea until a public policy emerges. There should be consultation with parents, Islamic scholars and educational experts, encouraging them to reach an overlapping consensus so that there will be open spaces for reform. Different curricula could be developed. Pilot projects could be launched to confirm some hypothesis and evaluate pupil's achievement. Flexibility should be given to learning and teaching schedule. Teaching and learning methods as well as material should be developed. Most importantly, teachers should be open to change and participate in the process of change. In fact, the whole process should be designed with all the aspects carefully thought of i.e. education management, rules and regulations, how to prevent influential people from diverting the reform for their own purposes, how to make the reform transparent, how to ensure fair competition etc.

            Public schools in the South should address two particular local aspects: the teachings of language and religion. These two aspects are closely linked to the identity of local people. To respond to local needs in education is one of the first steps to be undertaken on the road of reconciliation.

 Gothom Arya

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