Not all Thai government schools are created equal

It can be a difficult choice for parents


Anyone that has lived in Thailand for any length of time will realize that, as with most countries, inequalities exist everywhere.

In Thailand, it is often a case of Bangkok versus the rest of the country, and within that subset (and the context of ajarn dot com), there is a noticeable difference in the standards and qualities between public (government-run) schools. Even within that, there is a huge difference in the quality of education students receive (and expect) at various Thai schools.

What influences our choice?

Now, before I enrage the keyboard warriors out there (Thai Visa, I'm looking at you), let me just say that I'm not here to moan the inequalities of the world, nor do I feel that I have any grounds as a foreigner to judge the way the Thai society works. My perspective on this is as a teacher and potential parent; the hard reality for many of us is that, even if we could afford the 400,000+ THB Bangkok Pattana School and others of the "elite" charge for tuition per term (NIST is north of 600,000 in upper secondary IB!), there are various factors (culture, goals, pride, etc.) that may influence where we send our kids to school.

I'm not a parent, but having been a teacher for several years in both Thai and international schools, I've noticed huge differences in the atmospheres of various institutions - often regardless of the tuition fees.

Personal observations

I worked at a Thai school for several years in Bangkok, a large-ish school with roughly 3,000 students, and the general atmosphere was what I consider typical of a Thai government school: you have your teachers that genuinely care, but a whole lot of "mai pen rai" (no worries) from most everyone else. Ignoring all the factors that can cause this (administrative corruption, last minute governmental mandates, funding, you name it), the result is mediocrity for all but the most motivated students. Personally, and I am by no means making judgments for those who do, I don't think this is quite the environment I'd want my own kids to learn in if I could afford an alternative.

So, how about those alternatives? As I've discussed before, Thailand has several tiers of schools, and for the purpose of the here-and-now, I'm only considering public schools. However, "public" doesn't have the same definition in Thailand as it would in other countries; all public schools here have entrance exams (or rely on the standardized O-NET results), yet the extent to which students are accepted varies widely. Keep in mind that public schools aren't mostly free for parents as they generally are in Western countries; it's free with many conditions, often including book fees, electricity usage fees, and quite often "extra tuition" fees that many teachers offer (with the end result of pay = pass).

What's in a name?

As with everywhere, name recognition is a huge deal; the school I taught at wasn't what I consider the best by any means, but it does have some level of notoriety in Bangkok for whatever reason, and parents would often pay good money to tutoring [cram] schools to have their students "pass" the school's requirements... or, often, bribe the director to allow them entry. While that's not always the case, the more prestigious a school is, the more difficult it is for students to get in. The result? School segregation, for better or worse, along both academic and social standings.

The best example of this is actually a highly positive one: Triam Udomsuksa School near Siam is widely considered the best government school in Thailand, and after my experience there at a recent debate tournament, I'd say it is a well-deserved title. In fact, I'd argue that this government school is of higher calibre than many "upper tier" international schools I've worked with and for.

The school has over 5,000 students, and has the most competitive admissions requirements in the country. (What actually determines students' acceptance is another story.) The facilities are excellent (a government school with air conditioning?), and the overall atmosphere there is entirely different from the government school I worked at; to say that the motivation to succeed is everywhere-both in students and staff-would be an understatement. For example, you will see students walking around reading books of their own volition, and the teachers (both Thai and foreign) I know that work there are entirely dedicated to their professions. Thinking from a parent's perspective, I can't think of a better environment for a child to learn.

Bangkok v upcountry

Compare that to an upcountry school, such as one I visited in Pitsonalok awhile back; whereas Triam Udomsuksa has a relaxing on-campus lake complete with a gazebo and fountain, this school didn't even have doors for the classrooms. At Triam, students were learning with top Thai university graduate instructors, whereas Pitsonalok's teachers often lacked expertise and taught there to be close to home. Both of these are "government schools," mind you. Does this mean the students are of a lower quality at a no-name school than a prestigious one? Theoretically not, but in reality and practice, thinking as a parent, I would have to disagree.

Sure, this is an extreme example, but take any top school versus... well, the rest, and gives you reason to pause. The reality of it is, if you're a motivated student, you're always going to succeed at what you what to do. Unfortunately, the level to which success is allowed, or even conceptualized for that matter, depends largely on the opportunities given to you. It's thus an uphill battle, and if money is an issue, sending your kids to a nurturing and effective school is challenging in any country.

As I've said, I'm not a parent. But I work at an international school, and know that if I ever become one, I won't be able to afford the fees to send a child to the very school at which I work. I realize this is a huge reason that expats move back to their home countries - the standard of affordable education is vastly different - but with all the negativity, there are Thai schools of high standards to be found.

In my experience, aside from Triam Udomsuksa, many (if not most) of the university-affiliated public schools (demonstration schools) are of high caliber, and I've had first-hand experience with Kasetsart University's demonstration school and Patumwan Demonstration School (right next door to Triam Udomsuksa - how about that), and can honestly say that their level of quality is generally on par with or exceeding the public school I attended in the US, not that that's especially high praise.

There are some good bilingual schools to be found too - Panyarat High School in Silom, for example, or even low/mid-tier international schools with more affordable fees-but those go outside the realm of "public" schools.

I'll put it this way: my fiancé is a department head at a large Thai government school, and she has said she wouldn't send her child to the school she works at if she could avoid it, yet a more prestigious public school, she would. It's something to think about!


I hope you enjoyed my blog. If you would like to get in touch or perhaps e-mail me with a question, I would love to hear from you - All the best, Sam Thompson.


Comments

As a parent, I am now thinking about this, and will relate my experience from a chain EP/TP school that I used to work at.

At that school, the curriculum in EP was hard. Maths was way beyond what I studied, and my M2 / 3 students were studying GCSE and even A Level topics from the UK.

What seemed to be missing was that these subjects needed to be understood. The teachers taught, everyone passed, but only a few got it and got the benefit.

In my opinion, the ones who stood out were the children whose parents cared, and took time to make sure that their kids understood what they were learning. The best boy was half Italian / Thai, and he was exceptional. He would walk into any top school in the UK and not be out of place. The top girl used the word "Encyclopedia" in an English descriptive writing piece in class, (books would have sufficed). I had to check the spelling as her teacher.

The top schools provide this environment, so parents dont have to do it themselves. The parents there are busy, and well connected of course, as well as rich, so outsource this to the school and demand results. As with most things in Thailand, a little knowledge and effort goes a long way.

I work at a highly rated uni, and we get students there from all over Thailand, and they didnt all go to excellent schools. One of my best English students went to Sarasas Thai Program in a small town. Sure we get a lot of students from St Gabriels, St Francis Xavier, St Josephs Convent, Suankanlarb and the other names, but we also get students from Udon Thani, Songkhla, Khon Kaen etc.

As with the UK, if you go to an International School, the people you befriend will help you massively in life. But as in the UK, if you go to a normal school and work hard, with the right support anything is possible.

By Rob, Bkk (4 months ago)

Hey Mark

'There's a difference between judging someone or something and having an opinion about it'

Actually, many people get confused between the two. Foreigners living in other countries often think the line is simply to be followed and you daren't have an opinion even with other foreigners. 'It is what it is' syndrome. I'm always open for a frank and adult debate. This is also how science works. You have a theory and you welcome people trying to question it with logic and reason. Not with religion or emotion. We also loved to be proven wrong as it adds to the development of us all. We're not perfect so we must always be experimenting to improve.

I'm not American by the way. I'm a Brit living in the US. I'm also not a teacher. I work in the field of science. Yes, schools and healthcare are businesses here in the US. The US is certainly not the moral authority of the world. There are many of us here (local and foreign) who despise this and talk about it as adults without being offended. We talk about what's relevant to the conservation. I was replying in response to Sam's article. The relevance was to Thailand. Saying other countries have the same or worse problems digresses. Similar to "Well, they do it as well!" That doesn't make it right or in some way justifiable.

I never once judged Thai teachers. They simply follow the rules of the school. I would be very critical of the owners and managers though. I went to Thailand to gain experience which is essential to my studies. I was employed to teach general science. I was asked in my interview if I could improve my students knowledge of science. My answer was yes. This is after all why I was employed. Unfortunately, with so many cancelled classes, I was unable to really do that.

'Also - why would you think that your classes are more "beneficial" to students than the numerous "events" that you disapprove of?'

Not really a hard one to answer. If you want your kids to study or improve in the core subjects like science and maths, etc, you actually have to have them attend the classes. I'm not talking a few classes cancelled. I'm talking weeks/months of classes cancelled. If you have kids yourself, you'll understand.

Opinions are like arseholes; we all have them.

By Marcus, US (4 months ago)

@Marcus...

There's a difference between judging someone or something and having an opinion about it.

Also - why would you think that your classes are more "beneficial" to students than the numerous "events" that you disapprove of?

And - "I'm a firm believer that education and healthcare are not something which should be allowed to be bought or sold."

That's your opinion. Are you also judging Thai teachers (and presumably yourself) for being a part of the business of education in Thailand?

You're an American and the whole of the public education system in your country is based on business. You could start by controlling the junk food sold in the school canteens... or even better - remove the Coke machines and the Frito-Lay vending machines from the school corridors.

What you 'firmly believe' doesn't square with what's actually happening either here in Thailand or in the USA... or indeed anywhere (except maybe in countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Finland, The Netherlands and maybe Japan.)

@T mark

"Yes having students walking around reading a book between classes is great but..."

If I'm right, that was a metaphor for the general student attitude on campus and not necessarily to be taken too literally.

"Just another article justifying money over knowledge."

Call me ting tong, but I thought it was just the opposite!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (4 months ago)

"nor do I feel that I have any grounds as a foreigner to judge the way the Thai society works"

You're always entitled to an opinion. There's nothing wrong with having an opinion. Doesn't matter what's the country or the culture. You simply don't share those opinions with people who don't want to listen or have their own agenda. It's a very liberal idea that you must express your opinions within your own zone, but you can't express your opinions outside of that. Like; 'women should have equal rights to men, but in places like Saudi Arabia that's different. Must respect their culture". Anyway, I digress.

My experience of the two government schools I worked in is that they had a heck of a lot of events. So many lessons cancelled to have shows, etc. Hey, if that's what they wanna do, go nuts. But why so many events? Are they beneficial to the kids? Simple answer I found was 'no'. The school were taking money from the parents to host these events. These events were then filmed and photographed and put up on the website and Facebook, etc. The school were using these events to promote their business. Their school was strictly that - a business.

I'm a firm believer that education and healthcare are not something which should be allowed to be bought or sold (read previous paragraph to udnerstand why). And to paraphrase 'the Dude' "That's just like my opinion, man". I know, I know. How can you make it free? Someone has to pay. Yes, someone has to pay. That someone is everyone. This applies to all schools and hospitals around the world.

Anyway, I did the best I could when I was teaching. You wanna cancel classes to do some show? Fine. But I can't teach you if you're not here. You simply won't learn as much in my subject if you're not here to study it. It's that simple.

By Marcus, US (4 months ago)

I would like to say i stopped reading when I heard about a good school having Air con and a fountain. Definitely a requirement for a good school.I kept reading. I should have stopped.

Yes having students walking around reading a book between classes is great but like most students i meet are they actually comprehending what they read. Most are not.

So many people giving comment on what they see. Just another article justifying money over knowledge.

Enjoy your debts people.

Have fun

By T mark, Chantaburi (4 months ago)

Easily your best article and one of the most important and interesting reads I have had on this website for a long time. Awesome.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (4 months ago)

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