Thailand's Public VS. International Schools
Writer: Jelly Tongpaitoon
Editor: Adelyne Koe, Maple Chairatchaneeboon, Tonwaan Apiratikiat, Pat Sevikul
Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul
Article Section: Opinion
In 1951, Thailand established their very first international school, International School Bangkok (ISB) to house expatriates and serviced U.S embassy families. Today, 70 odd years later, Thailand houses virtually 160 different international schools, with 89 in Bangkok alone. This recent influx in parents flocking to pay 80,000 to 1,000,000 baht (US$2,000 - 28,000) to enroll their children in these schools has many wondering what a private international school provides to the students that a domestic Thai school doesn’t.
Being a student/alumni of an international school could gain you much praise or status in Thai society. To everyone, it means you’re going somewhere–you’re getting out. But how have we evolved to the point that success equates attending a school taught by a white majority of staff that forces down eurocentric ideology and culture? Something that consequently leaves the student to become out of touch with issues happening in their own country with their Thai lessons being disregarded with minor importance, resulting in many Thai students with subpar Thai skills.
People could argue that the general decision for parents of the new generation to choose to enroll their students in international schools over traditional Thai schools has been a culmination of the westernization of Thailand as well as the long lasting reputation Thai schools have had for being strict and heavily conservative. Although most Thai schools have stopped or lessened implementing a lot of the rules and regulations rooted in old fashioned views, many parents could be seeking a different and more progressive alternative learning environment for their children. An environment disconnected to the stigmas of past regulations such as strict haircut rules down to the centimeter, rote repetition and spankings as a means of disciplining students. The first international school in Thailand may have opened in 1951, but it wasn’t until 26 years ago in 1996 that the government allowed Thai students to attend international schools. Before then, only expats (expatriates) and non-Thai passport-holding students were allowed to attend said schools. This left Thai parents of that generation with no choice but to enroll their children in public or non international private schools where traditional values and old fashioned views, which were seldom used in the more modernized international schools, were present.
International schools are widely known for their modern and progressive approaches to education. An example of this is their heavily student centered curriculums such as the GCSEs, where many schools advise students to only take around 10 subjects, most of which are chosen by the students themselves according to their passions and what they are interested in pursuing in the future. Additionally, what international schools differ from Thai schools most is the active effort international schools go to promote discussions of ideas between students and the concept of there being ‘no right answer’.
Many Thai schools are prone to large claustrophobic classrooms ranging from 40-60 students per class as a result of the lack of funding Thai schools are often victim to. This may not come off as a huge issue at first, but one teacher against sixty kids results in less participation in class (which is already a lot less than international schools considering discussion is rarely promoted in Thai classrooms) and less individualized attention, to name a few. This lack of personalization for the students can demotivate them and set a negative image for the relationship dynamics they may form later in the workplace.
A problem which plagues the Thai education system is its borderline authoritarian characteristics. Thai students’ aspirations and career paths are often intercepted and are pushed into pursuing different fields if their grades are not determined good enough by schools.
Many students are either denied access to study humanities/art since schools deem them as unsuccessful career paths, or if offered, are looked down upon for choosing it as the easier career choice in comparison to STEM fields. The praise of paths such as engineering and medicine not only creates a dull and repetitive cycle, but also oversaturates these fields of work, making it difficult for many people to find jobs after graduation. Many Thai school students and alumni have also spoken out about the many flaws within the classroom, such as teachers being verbally abusive. While physical abuse such as spankings have been generally watered down, many teachers still ruthlessly tease and insult their students, usually ones that are less academically advanced and/or stereotyped as ‘the problem child’, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. This mental abuse from teachers, along with the instilled fear in students to question authorities, and the emphasis on respecting and following traditional societal values isolates Thai people further from the modern world’s progressive views. As a result, many alumni have stated that they’ve had to unlearn the majority of things they were taught while in school as it was often either biased propaganda, or outdated.
An example of this is the Thai history taught in classrooms. Students are expected to receive information and accept it the way it is, even if it is biased or factually incorrect. The curriculum glorifies Thai history and the success of its leaders without acknowledging past failures and exempts them of any moral wrongdoing, aiding propaganda and civilian submissiveness. The education system deciding not to promote critical or comparative history implies that the students are taught to believe there are always right or wrong answers, rarely ever asking them open ended questions as that would risk the students thinking for themselves.
Conversely, there is a major pattern that progressive teaching methods are more present eurocentric curriculums. While it is no doubt that opting to prepare students for western secondary school exams such as GCSEs, A levels, IB etc, would require teachers to teach from the very western centric syllabus, a more active effort should be put in to exploring the culture of the very country the students are living in. A phenomenon ever present within the Thai international school student body is the lack of fundamental Thai language skills and ground knowledge regarding the country’s history. Despite the argument that the Thai First Language GCSE course is made compulsory for every Thai passport holding student, many Thai students often consider it to be second priority compared to their chosen subjects as there is no passion or urge to stay diligent in their studies for that subject. This is majorly due to the Thai subject itself being seen as unimportant compared to the likes of mathematics, literacy and science.
Finally, the increase of international schools, and consequently its students, within the country could lead the government to view funding local Thai schools as less of a priority, adding fire to the fuel that is the underfunding of the education system. Underfunded schools are unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in many parts of the world, including Thailand. Cases of schools underpaying teachers could reach extremes such as paying their teachers the mere sum of 5,000 baht (US$139.63) per month, which does not even meet the country’s legal minimum wage law. This idea that a “good education” requires money is a major setback no matter how much the Thai Ministry of Education tries to make education mandatory and “free” for the first 12 years. It promotes the materialistic and classist ideology that in order to be successful in life, you must be wealthy and have an expensive and eurocentric education. It is time to re-evaluate whether the “any education at all is better than no education” concept is good enough, if the standard of local Thai schools are generally underfunded and discounted for.
Parents sending their children off to international schools with a fresh, new viewpoint on this rapidly growing society could serve as a way of rejecting or leaving behind the past conservative school experiences they’ve had to endure. But we must ask ourselves: at what point does it become too much that Thailand becomes less of a country our children grow up fond of, and more of just a pit stop for their future studies in England or America?