As any foreign visitor to Thailand or expat will know, the neatness and orderly appearance of Thai school children is a very impressive thing. Even from poorer families, school children are always impeccably turned out. This order and discipline, like the pride that Thai people have for their nation, is sadly lacking today in western countries. However, Thailand’s education system now faces 21st century challenges where old fashioned values of discipline and even teamwork may not be enough. There is also a growing call, from progressive forces in Thailand, to become more liberal. This weekend this debate was joined online where over 1.1 million people viewed a video of Thai teachers reprimanding a female student who failed to cut her hair to the required length after repeated warnings. Her hair was cropped in school and in public. Many Thais screamed a breach of human rights or even violence while others condemned the video and called for her expulsion.

This week a viral video highlighted the strong, disciplined dress code and education policies pursued in Thailand’s schools when a 4th year secondary school student had her long hair sheared in the school yard before other, astonished pupils. It follows a reported controversy some weeks ago where a 4 year old Thai girl in kindergarten school was told she must dye her natural brown hair black to meet the school dress code or find another school. It comes at a time when Thailand’s education system and policies are rising public issues as the country confronts a new disruptive, technological future and Thai people ask questions about how Thailand’s schools and education system will adapt.

Thai school, Thai discipline: two Thai teachers take action against a 4th year secondary school student in Kanchanaburi province by cutting her hair publicly after she failed to cut her hair to the required length, despite repeated requests to do so. The viral video of what happened has now been viewed over 1.1 million times after it was released on Thursday and shared nearly 6,000 times as the incident also sparked quite a heated debate on social media. One former university students union president described it as a breach of human rights or violence while other online commentators defended the actions of the school and teachers. It comes at a time of huge change and challenges being faced by Thailand’s education system.

News online in Thailand this weekend is full of the story of a Thai 4th year secondary school student being forced to cut her hair because she had breached school discipline due to her hair length. The Mathayom 4 student was recorded in a video clip on January 10th as two Thai teachers cut her hair in the school precincts while other students played and socialised. One teacher brought out a ruler to measure the right standard for the required cut and the other used a shears to cut it in a rugged, straight line.  The school rules specify, like nearly all Thai schools, that female students may not have hair at a length of more than 9 inches from he ears.

School leaders robustly defend Thai girls schoolyard hair shearing and warn students who posted the video

 ‘Teachers warned her many times, but she didn’t get her hair cut according to the rules,’ one of the school’s officials, Phawadee Jittamai, told the media. Indeed the official was aghast at the publicity the incident has received and promised stern retribution against whichever student at the school was responsible for publishing the video footage of the incident online. ‘We cut her hair according to the school rules in the student handbook. The student who posted the clip also damaged the school’s reputation and will have their behavior scores docked,’ she warned.

Online storm of criticism and debate about the Thailand’s strict school dress code

The incident has sparked criticism online but it must be remembered that it occurs in a society and education system that is steeped in conservative culture that promotes the twin concepts of self discipline and teamwork which are the two key Thai characteristics that are revered and valued in the country. It must also be said that these are qualities and values which, at one time, were also widely cultivated in western countries and there are many in the West who feel that they should again be emphasised. The incident itself took less than a minute and it could be observed, at least from appearances, that the young Thai girl did not seem too upset about what was going on.

Thai school located near the famous River Kwai

The Thai school in question was the Kanchananukroh School which is located in Kanchanaburi province, a large province in the west of Thailand, bordering Myanmar. The school itself is in Kanchanaburi City which is a large municipality with a population over 30,000 near the the famous River Kwai bridge.

Not so uncommon in Thai schools – Thai teachers say

In fact, many teachers in Thailand have told the Thai Examiner that this is not an uncommon event in Thai schools and classrooms across the country. What is unusual is the controversy has been generated online due to the video emerging. In Thailand, the internet is seen as a platform or environment with a more modern, outward looking bent. There was a lot of sympathy from other female students for the Thai teenager who had disobeyed the school rules and who was, consequently, given the improvised haircut.

Video clip of Thai student’s forced haircut viewed over 1.1 million times by online commentators

The video clip was published on Thursday. By Sunday it had been viewed over 1.1 million times with nearly 6,000 shares and 2,000 comments. The comments were divided. Some castigated the actions of the teachers as heavy handed even with reference to a school dictatorship while quite a few observed that the school rules were clear and that the student had a choice to observe them or leave the establishment. Other commentators questioned the shortness of the cut saying that it left the girls hair well above the 9 inch rule.

Double standards of Thai teachers and schools questioned by some Thai people on Facebook

Others took issue with the double standards at Thai schools. They pointed out that teachers themselves, by regulations issued through Thailand’s Ministry of Education, are required to wear a very smart and formal government uniform. These uniforms consist of military style epaulettes and government insignia on beige khaki. Some online posters drew attention to a 2013 warning from Thailand’s Department of Education warning teachers that they should observe the country’s uniform code or they may be prohibited from teaching while losing their salary.

In fact, all the regulations regarding uniform code and school discipline in Thailand originate from the country’s education ministry which does, however, offer schools some leeway. It has been reported over the weekend that some schools have more relaxed uniform and haircut standards. However, even where Thai girls are allowed to have longer hair, it must be discretely presented or tied up.

School dress code debate stirred by video of Thai school girl having her hair sheared at school

The incident has stirred days of online debate in Thailand. 20 year Tanawat Wongchai, who was at one time a student leader and president of the Students Union at the Chulalongkorn University, is a known voice for progressive causes in Thailand. He has called on all schools in the kingdom to put an end to what many progressives feel is an old fashioned and outdated regime. Speaking to the news website Khaosod, he called for complete freedom for students in such matters and suggested that the incident at the school was a violation of the female student’s rights. Indeed he described it as an act of violence. It must, however, be pointed out that there are many in Thailand, even within academia, who would not agree with this view. For many of Thailand’s educators ‘self discipline’ is the key attribute to success. Thailand banned corporal punishment in schools in 2005 but there are many who still consider this an unwise move while most progressive voices feel it was, in fact, long overdue.

Thailand’s Ministry of Education insists on short hair for boys and that girls in school have hair that reaches no longer than the nape of the neck. Although schools have discretion on the matter, a smart and tidy appearance is required at all times.

Mixed opinion in Thailand on strict discipline in schools with a heightened sense of the value of tradition in Thailand among the public in recent years

Thai society, as with most other issues, is of mixed of opinion on the question of school discipline and a strict uniform code. There is growing recognition in Thailand, in the last few years, of the value of its traditional ways and culture and the danger of following western concepts. This thinking is heightened by the growing sense of crisis in western countries where many conservative Thai people see western countries as reaping the whirlwind of abandoning old fashioned values. Even among young Thai people, commenting on the Facebook debate over the weekend, there were some calls for the Thai school girl to be expelled because of her disobedience and the controversy she had brought upon her school. Many older commentators, in turn, lamented the growing sensitivity of younger Thai people.

Battle of progressive versus liberal forces even extends to Thailand’s kindergarten schools

However, it is not the first controversy of this kind, this year. The rigid standard in Thailand’s educational system is not just seen in secondary school but also extends to kindergarden. At the beginning of the year, the Thai press was reporting the story of a little 4 year old Thai in second year kindergarten whose parents were ordered to dye her hair black. The school and the child cannot be identified. The problems arose when the young Thai girl was found to be the only one in her class with a brown pigment in her hair.

Thai mother told that 4 year old kindergarten student must dye hair black or find another school

The teacher at the Thai public school robustly informed the mother of the little girl that she would have to immediately take steps to dye her little girl’s hair black. She cited the school’s dress code and stated that it was unacceptable for the young girl to have a different hair colour from the rest of her classmates.

The young mother assumed that the teacher may have misunderstood the situation. She informed the teacher that her daughter had natural brown hair. However, the teacher still refused to accept the situation. She told the mother that, as both parents were Thai nationals, then the little girl would have to have black hair. The two women did not agree and the teacher recommended that the mother send her daughter to a private or international school. In Thailand, these schools are prohibitively expensive for most ordinary Thai people. The little Thai girl would only be accepted back to class with black hair.

Principal of school called in and resolves matter – Thai girl allowed to stay as brown hair was natural

The principal of the educational establishment had to be called in to resolve the affair. The principal found in favor of the Thai mother. The little girl’s mother felt strongly that the standard of education at the public school was better for her daughter. The principal established that the little girl had natural brown hair and could see no reason to remove her from school.

Teacher then accused of bullying Thai girl over her lesbian aunt leads to shocking outburst

However, this was not the end of the matter. A new storm blew up, some time later, when the little girl complained at home of comments made by the teacher about her aunt. The teacher had discovered that this woman was gay. This prompted the Thai mother again to visit the school, this time accusing the teacher of sexism and being prejudiced against gay people. Again, the principal was called in. The teacher denied any bullying. This time the matter was not resolved and brought to a conclusion by a verbal outburst from the little girl’s teacher: ‘If your child grows up and becomes a lesbian, will you be ok with that?’ she asked the shocked parent. The little girl ended up being transferred to a private school.

Public schooling is an issue for some foreigners living in Thailand with a Thai wife and children

Schooling is, in fact, a growing problem for many foreign men who marry Thai wives and opt to live in Thailand. In some instances, it can be hair colouring but also, amazingly, language. One Anglo Thai family discovered that their young Thai daughter, who was fluent in English, did not have the necessary Thai language skills for schooling at a Thai public school as the little girl was reared in a household where her two parents spoke English predominantly. It has meant that the little girls has had to get extra Thai language lessons but is still facing some difficulty at school. It is quite a common issue among the growing number of Thai foreigner families as more Thai women marry foreign men and the family opts to settle in Thailand. It highlights the desirability for foreigners to learn to speak Thai and to make sure that their Thai children learn their native tongue even while living in a household where a foreign language is often used.

Thailand determined to preserve its unique culture, heritage and values while education system must become fit for a modern age

The controversies and issues show a Thai education system which is struggling to come to terms with a changing Thailand but also a country that is becoming very aware of the huge intrinsic value its unique culture and heritage in a fast moving and shifting world. Education leaders are pulled between the forces of a new global world and the absolute necessity of preserving the coherence of the nation which is its core strength and inherently prized by many Thai people. One symptom of this is that Thailand’s education system continues to have problems teaching English to its students to a satisfactory level, despite it being a key government policy.

Education a big issue in this year’s election

The electioneering for this year’s election in Thailand has also shown education to be an issue that is surprisingly important to people in Thailand at this time. There is a new awareness that young Thai people must be thought to adapt to new technology and that the education system in Thailand must move quickly to meet this challenge. Opposition parties such as the Bhumjaithai Party and the progressive Future Forward Party have all highlighted policies to make education available for free while the new Thai Raksa Chart Party, a splinter of the former ruling Pheu Thai Party and believed to be close to Thaksin Shinawatra, this week highlighted an imaginative new education policy to make education available to Thai people through smartphones. This is something women in Thailand have known for decades with research study after study showing Thai women are more likely to use the internet as an education resource and tool for life improvement.

World education leader outlined new future of work to Thai TV audiences this week

This weekend, also on Thai PBS TV,  Dame Minouche Shafik of the London School of Economics outlined the future of jobs and careers as mankind and Thailand moves into the 21st century. Her words have meaning for many Thai people today who are being let go from what were once thought secure white collared jobs in administration and banking. The educator called for young Thai people to be thought more digital skills and to be prepared for a life and world where retooling and constant education would be required, often driven personally by themselves. She underlined the need for workers in the future, to work for many more years than past generations. This is due to the lower birth rate and long life spans of today’s society.

Thailand must strive for the best balance possible in education system between character and innovation

Dame Minouche envisaged a world where adults would have to retrain and reinvent themselves, even into their 50’s and again in their 60’s, to make the cut in the brave new online world that is emerging. It appears to be a far cry from the haircut of a young Thai teenager in 4th level in Kachanaburi. But maybe not, for ultimately the question is between learning character lessons or skills, being disciplined or innovative or most importantly of all, being a team player or an individual. The question is, can an ideal balance be struck in a country where balance itself is an ideal worth striving for.

The debate over discipline and uniform code in Thai schools is part of a bigger one about the character of Thailand, its people and nation in the future. Is it possible for a country to preserve it unique traits, sense of community and discipline while navigating a new world where the future of industry, commerce and work itself, is online and achievement rests on innovation as well as discipline, hard work, co-operating with others and perseverance.