BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - If the Early Childhood Bill sails through the National Legislative Assembly this year, young children will be able to say goodbye to exams.
"We hope it will be legislated in time for use in the 2019 academic year," Associate Professor Daranee Utairatanakit, a member of the Independent Committee for Education Reform, said in a recent interview with The Nation.
The National Education Reform Commission is set to consider the draft law this week, after which it will be forwarded to the Education Minister, the Cabinet and then the National Legislative Assembly. Before it goes to the Cabinet, opinions from stakeholders including parents will be gathered.
The bill defines children of early-childhood stage as foetuses through to children aged eight years old, making a big change to the now-used definition of children aged between three and six.
"Human brains have developed the most during our newly-defined early childhood," Prof Daranee said. "Before the age of eight, children have not yet stepped fully into the world of reality."
She said the Early Childhood Bill was drafted with the aim of laying down a firm foundation for children, which will be useful to lifelong learning.
To prevent children from unnecessary stress and the loss of self-confidence, the bill is expected to bar schools from testing children during the enrolment process and also to ban exams for students from Prathom 1 to 3 levels.
Primary schools that organise entrance exams will face a fine of up to 500,000 baht (S$20,970) if the bill becomes law.
Many parents have enrolled their children in tutorial classes at a very young age in the hope of equipping them with various skills, academic knowledge and the opportunity to enter the country's most prestigious schools.
Some children have been forced to prepare for exams for entry to top primary schools at the age of just two-and-a-half.
Many parents have also enrolled their children in 300-hour tutorial courses as they come close to sitting exams for renowned primary schools. These courses cost about 160,000 baht per head.
Prof Daranee said such practices could do more harm than good.
"At such a young age, children should be allowed to learn with fun and develop naturally based on their potential," she said.
Prof Daranee said the focus on children's ability to read or write as well as to understand academic knowledge could take place at a later stage. The bill seeks to ban exams during the early-childhood stage so as to protect children, she added.
"Those exams are prone to imposing way too much pressure on children. So many Prathom 1 students are in fact not yet ready to sit in classes, even though they have good intellectual intelligence. They are unhappy in classrooms, affecting their abilities to learn and hurting their self-confidence," Prof Daranee explained.
She said many children became disappointed when they could not successfully pass exams to famous primary schools, because of their parents' expectations. Prof Daranee said many of these disappointed children had better potential than those who learnt to study well at a young age.
"I must emphasise that when children are happy, they will be capable. When parents don't try to dictate to them in all aspects of their life, children will naturally learn to solve problems on their own," she said.
Although the Early Childhood Bill will not force a ban on tutorial schools for children aged under eight, it should still be able to end the practice, she said.
"When there are no competitive exams for kids, no one will want to put their children in tutorial classes," she said.
Last year, a five-year-old pupil developed bruises after a teacher at a tutorial school hit him for failing to live up to the school's expectations. The school is known for having produced several successful applicants to a top school.
"This reflects the pressure that these types of courses have imposed on young children. Stress negatively affect their brains," Prof Daranee warned.
She said the Early Childhood Bill was not impractical, as it would push for the establishment of a policy committee that would determine how schools could recruit students without sitting tough tests.
"We do offer flexibility. But in essence, if this bill is introduced, there will be no gruelling exams for young children," she said.
The writer is with The Nation, which is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.