Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok is recognized as one of the top international schools in Thailand. They have recently opened a new campus on Rama 9, the City Campus, to accompany their well-established Riverside Campus on Charoen Krung Road. Ajarn is honored to chat with the recently-appointed Riverside Principal, Mr Chris Seal.
Chris, a very warm welcome to the Ajarn hot seat. Shrewsbury's riverside location on Bangkok's Chao Phrya River looks amazing. If I were to come down for a guided tour (and hopefully I'll get the chance in the new year) which facilities are you particularly proud of? What's got the wow factor?
Thank you for the welcome Phil, it is an honour to be in the hot seat, and I look forward to giving you the tour. You are right, we have an incredible location right down by the Chao Phraya. The school was purpose built fifteen years ago, and has some wonderful views out over the river.
The playing fields are laid by Khun Queen, who lays many pitches for the top Thai football sides, and our Canterbury field is simply superb and a real oasis in the bustle of the city.
Our Memorial Hall is also pretty special, and plays host to high quality concerts, lectures and productions all year round, including our well known Last Night of the Proms concert. In addition to that, we have well appointed classroom and specialist teaching spaces across the school. We are fortunate indeed.
How does the Riverside Campus compare to the new City Campus in terms of size and student numbers?
At Riverside, we now have 1718 students from age 3 to 18, some 800 or so in our Junior School and a growing Senior School. Between now and 2021 we are building more capacity here at Riverside to grow our Senior School again.
At City Campus, numbers are healthy in their first year, at approaching 200, and in time we will see over 600 students there who will transition automatically to the Riverside campus. The Shrewsbury education remains in demand across the city.
I follow you on Twitter and you look to have an incredible range of out-of-school activities for the students. The other week you and the students were packing leech socks! Where on earth were you heading? What are some of the other more unusual or unique activities that students can get involved in?
We believe passionately that the co-curriculum is a key part of any institution and we know our students benefit from being taken to new places, and experiencing things outside their usual sphere. The leech socks were necessary for the Y5s on their trip to Khao Yai, who went trekking in the jungle up there. Our Duke of Edinburgh Gold candidates have just come back from Chiang Mai and they will head off to Japan in the new year.
We send sports teams all over the region, but also love going to temples and other schools close to us. Classroom learning is vital, but the perspective students get from these trips is also a key part of what we do.
Many years ago, I interviewed the Thai principal of a new international school in Bangkok. One of the things he was really big on was interviewing the parents of any student who wished to enroll. "We have to be sure that both the student AND the parents are a good fit for the school. When the student is at home, the parents have to do their utmost to provide a stable and supportive environment. We're looking for quality students from quality families". What are some of the ways Shrewsbury gets parents involved in their children's education and general well-being?
To an extent that comment still holds true. One of our key entry points to Shrewsbury is at Early Years 1 when the children are three years of age. The interaction with their parents is key at this age and can have a significant impact on development, and so it is important to understand the support that parents will offer their children.
We are incredibly fortunate that our parent body is extremely keen to be involved and engaged in the education of their children, and we run regular Parents in Partnership sessions to reinforce that link. Over many years in education it has been evident to me that great education comes when school, child and parent are in concert.
So what about yourself, Chris? Part of your internet bio says that "Chris has been a frequent visitor to South East Asia over many years, including working there as an educational consultant". Was this work also in Thailand or in other South-East Asian countries?
Yes, I suppose this all began with a recruitment trip I went on to Hong Kong about ten years ago for the boarding school I was working at then. Something about the city really got to me, and we came back soon after on a holiday to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Phuket. The Thai legs of that trip were just brilliant, and from there we enjoyed trips to Penang and Khao Lak over the next few years.
Around the time I was looking at Headships, I had also been asked to work with Harrow Beijing and Marlborough Malaysia in offering training to boarding staff. On each occasion the region left a positive impression on us all as a family.
You were appointed as Principal in August 2017, so you've now got a whole year of living full-time in Bangkok under your belt. Are you settling in well, sir? What are some of the things you particularly like about life in the big city?
I think we’ve settled in really well. My two girls are at Shrewsbury and they have found friends, sport and music and are receiving a fantastic education. My wife is also a teacher and she is now doing a cover role in the junior school, something that can be hard to appoint and retain staff in.
This sense of being busy is what we are used to after many years in a boarding school environment so I think it has really helped us settle. Bangkok is an incredible place to live and such a change from rural Somerset. We love the access to entertainment, restaurants, shopping and culture that is now on our doorstep. We also really love the energy of the city, but also have the ability to leave it behind and be on a deserted beach in a few hours – that is another great benefit of living here in our view.
In the year leading up to your appointment, you spent time both at the Shrewsbury Riverside IS in Bangkok and the Shrewsbury School in the UK. Is that still the case - dividing your time between the two countries - or are you totally focused on managing the Bangkok operation?
That transition year was a busy time. I was still Deputy Head at Millfield in Somerset and so combining that with learning about the Shrewsbury family and also working through the move to Bangkok was full on.
My role here is all about leading the Riverside campus, but the relationships with Shrewsbury School in the UK are vital as we have shared governance and it is where we host much of our staff recruitment process. So I go there at least twice a year, and the travelling is an enjoyable part of the role.
Now readers will have to indulge me for a moment Chris, because I'm something of a cricket fanatic and I see that in your time as Head of PE at Woodbridge School in England, you played minor counties cricket for Suffolk. Now for those who don't follow cricket, that is a VERY decent level to play at. In my school captaincy days, I was officially an all-rounder but preferred to call myself a bowler 'who could bat a bit'. So what were you and what has been your greatest moment in cricket whites?
Very kind of you Phil. I was lucky enough to play for Suffolk CCC from 1997 to 2005. I was probably similar to you at Minor Counties level, I bowled a lot for Suffolk in a containing role and then clobbered a few when I could. In club cricket I could be a genuine all rounder and often opened the batting . I was always keen to get on with it, so my 50 from 29 balls versus Cambridgeshire was good fun, and I managed a fair few league hundreds. These days my batting would look pedestrian but back in the 90s scoring at a run a ball was pretty handy.
I played a lot of cricket for Clacton in the East Anglian Premier League and once took 6 wickets for 0 runs, but thinking back probably my greatest success was not getting killed while facing Dale Steyn, the South African international fast bowler, who had just joined Essex.
Our coach in his infinite wisdom decided we should have a pre-season friendly with them. It wasn’t that friendly!
Chris, as you know, Ajarn is a website for foreign teachers in Thailand and teachers who are planning to come and work here, so I'm going to get down to the teacher stuff if I may. Firstly, how many foreign (non-Thai) teachers does Shrewsbury employ as full-time, part-time or teaching assistants across the two campuses (or 'campi' if we want to get all Latin about it)?
Across the two schools we now have around 160 full-time and fully qualified teachers from the UK working with us. All the teaching assistants are Thai, but we do also employ a strong English as Addition Language (EAL) department which comes from the Bangkok market and comes from a range of backgrounds.
These are often non-QTS roles, and they are supplemented by some Learning Support posts and roles such as Learning Mentors (similar to counselling), which again are non-QTS staff that would typically be appointed from the local market.
In addition I would say that the movement between schools in Bangkok for QTS staff is growing.
An obvious question but what qualifications does Shrewsbury typically look for in a full-time teacher?
For a full time teacher post, we insist upon qualified teacher status in the UK or equivalent.
There are several 'hot topics' that often come up when teachers who are earning, let's say 25,000 - 50,000 baht a month, perhaps as an English teacher in a Thai secondary school, want to make the step up to become a 'proper' international school teacher. Firstly, qualifications.
Opinion seems to be divided on whether it's worth giving up on life in Thailand to return home and put in the X number of hard years it would take to become qualified. Some say it's so worth the effort; others disagree. I would love your two cents on this particular debate.
I think you make a good point, Phil. To put a career and a fantastic lifestyle on hold while you go back to the UK to get qualified can put off perfectly good teaching candidates and we are looking at this.
In the first instance we have instituted a Teaching Intern position at Shrewsbury which pays just over 25,000 baht per month and this affords a colleague an opportunity to have a look at teaching in a school such as ours and see if it is for them.
If they like it and do well, then we will consider moving them towards QTS qualification and we are working closely with the TES and their Straight to Teaching product that allows an experienced teacher who hasn’t got QTS to follow an 'assessment only' route to the qualification.
This means that they won’t have to go back to the UK to do a PGCE. It is a small step in the right direction, and in time schools will have to find ever more innovative routes into recruitment as the supply of teachers from the UK becomes harder to tap into.
Now that IS an interesting development. Let's not be vulgar and talk about money but there are some attractive benefits to being an international school teacher aren't there? - I mean apart from the monthly wage packet.
Yes, the salaries are good, and especially at the moment with the exchange rate being so favourable, we are all finding it a good time to be sending money back to the UK.
Our links to the Sophonpanich family (Khun Chali Sophonpanich owns the school) allows us to offer accommodation in the Chatrium Residences or Bangkok Gardens as part of our package. This makes a huge difference for families and also young staff moving our here, especially if they are coming from London.
In addition we look to care for our staff from the moment they are appointed. A new staff blog, constant updates from HR, support through our VISA office, a relocation allowance, health care, flights at the beginning and end of two year contracts and salary advances are all things we offer to ensure that staff feel comfortable in their move to us.
At the end of the third year, we offer a bonus scheme too, and this then kicks in annually. This is part of the reason why we have only around a 10-13% turnover of staff each year. I’m a great believer that we should look after our key resources, the students and the staff!
Another hot topic is workload. I was chatting recently to someone who is a part-time teaching assistant at an international school. They enjoy the job immensely but at the end of a day's 'assisting' they go home to their family and that's that. They don't take their work home with them. "I wouldn't swap my teaching assistant role with that of a full-time teacher for all the tea in China", the assistant went on, "you have to live and breathe work in that position and put up with all the stress and pressure that goes with it"
I think the teaching assistant's main point was that top international schools certainly demand their pound of flesh from full-time teachers. What's your take on that?
I’ve worked in the independent sector in the UK since 1996 and for much of that time taught on Saturdays and I so completely understand the premise of the question. It is not for everyone. I have very good mates from the state sector and they would never want my life. Similarly I would find it very difficult to give away what I feel strongly is a lifestyle and vocation, not simply a job.
Indeed as Principal, I define myself by what we achieve and so am happy to commit to this life fully. At Shrewsbury I think we get the balance right. It is a cliché, but we do work hard and play hard. Expectations are high and we do ask a lot of our colleagues, but we also expect them to enjoy their time away from school and return refreshed.
The well-being of our staff is of paramount importance to me and so we support colleagues when times are tough and our community is a wonderfully strong one. There is certainly some pressure on all of us in this sector, but the key to this is making sure that all colleagues are aware of this before they accept a post here and a key part of our recruitment strategy is to be completely open about what it is like working in a busy international school.
Finally, the question of recruitment. 'Dear Phil, how do I go about getting a job at an international school?' This question comes up more times in my e-mail inbox Chris, than you've hit sixes over the pavilion. For many years, my standard reply was that international schools tend to recruit directly via job and education fairs abroad. Rarely / never do they recruit locally. In fact, I recall one international school recruiter went as far as telling me that the top institutes actually have a 'mistrust' of the single male teacher living in Bangkok and his motives for being here. I'll leave that thought there because it always sounded rather harsh to me - but how is Shrewsbury's recruitment of foreign teachers handled these days?
Great question Phil and one that highlights the dangers of 'generalising' in this market. Essentially we are looking for great people and they come from all countries and all backgrounds.
For a full time teaching role we are clear that QTS or equivalent is a must and all of these posts are advertised in the TES. However, more and more we are exploring ways of tapping into the growing market in Bangkok, both QTS and non QTS.
Our safeguarding procedures are strong and so I would be clear that all prospective colleagues will undergo full background and police checks. Therefore I am confident that we can employ colleagues from a range of backgrounds and have indeed employed a single male teacher from Bangkok in the past twelve months. He is an outstanding practitioner from another international school and we are very lucky to have appointed him.
We all have different reasons for being in Bangkok and the more I get to know the city and the sector, I’m sure that lazy stereotypes are not the way to go.
So what's your long-term plan Chris? You're still a relatively young man. Have you given yourself a time-frame here? Do you see yourself and your family heading back to the UK one day? (be careful how you answer this because I came to Thailand for a holiday and 28 years later I'm still here!)
I wish I felt like a young man! Thank you for that Phil, but I suppose you are right, I still have much to do in education. I have signed a five year contract up to 2022 and as long as my Governors continue to be happy with what I do, I would hope to sign a second contract to 2027.
By the time I’ve been here for ten years I would imagine I’ll become as institutionalised as other expats like you? At the moment I can’t see a reason why I would return to the UK. We love Thailand and the UK is changing in a way that I have not enjoyed since 2016. However, you can never say never, and the pull of family is always strong, though currently we see more of our parents in Bangkok due to regular visits than we used to in the UK!