Phil Roeland

Back to school

A brief overview of primary and secondary schools in Thailand

In Thailand, May is the month when most students go back to school after a two to three-months summer holiday. For some, this is a joyous occasion as they are getting bored stiff sitting at home with nothing to do; for others, it’s a relief for not being sent to summer school tutoring every day anymore; for many, it's the dreaded return to the Thai classroom where killing time is the main task of the day.

In this month's article, I'll give a brief overview of primary and secondary schools in Thailand, introduce you to a few of my students and discuss some burning issues on the Thai education front. Being employed by a private language school, I have the privilege of meeting students of all different walks of life, well upper walks to be correct. Usually they have one thing in common: they – or their parents – can afford private tuition outside of regular school hours.

I feel that extra-curricular tutoring can either be a blessing or a curse. It can be a blessing because apparently the quality of regular Thai education remains so inadequate in many schools that in order to learn anything useful at all, tutors – be it language, maths or science tutors – are an almost necessary addition to a student's formal education. However, as I mentioned last month, I have the impression that dragging children to several tutoring school at the weekend or after school hours can rob them of their childhood. Aren't children supposed to play with their friends and have fun after having completed their homework?

There are three main kinds of schools in Thailand: government schools, private schools and international schools. Internationals schools are the most expensive, with average yearly fees ranging from 200,000 to 600,000 baht, depending on the quality and reputation of the school. All lessons are conducted in English, except foreign language lessons and Thai language lessons of course. Class sizes are usually small (15–25 students per class) and most, if not all, teachers are foreign. Admission criteria are strict.

Private schools are schools resembling government schools, but are privately owned and managed. Tuition fees are much lower than international schools, ranging from around 50,000 to 200,000 baht per school year. Admission criteria are not as strict as for international schools and class sizes are bigger (25–40 students). Most of these schools run English programmes, meaning that students are usually taught in both Thai and English. It is possible for students to have a geography lesson in Thai, only to be followed by the same lesson taught in English by a foreign teacher. Unfortunately, despite the existence of admission criteria, some schools will admit just about anyone (they're running a business, remember), even if the candidate’s English is much to poor to undergo lessons conducted in English. These students often require extra tutoring to bring their English skills up to speed.

Government schools are schools run under the patronage of the Ministry of Education. There are tens of thousands of them across the country and most don't have a very good reputation. A lack of funding, limited resources, not always qualified teachers and the no-fail policy all contribute to students graduating with few useful skills at all. Most schools admit just about anyone. Class sizes are big (45–60 students) and often most – if not all – teachers are Thai. Education is supposedly completely free, although many schools charge small fees to cover expenses such as utility bills and foreign teachers' salaries. School uniforms and text books are other costs incurred by parents.

Surprisingly, some 300 government schools country-wide, most of them in and around Bangkok, are considered top-notch and places in these schools are highly sought after. These schools usually have strict admission criteria. To give an example, more than 20,000 students sat the test to get into the top senior high school, with only 1,400 places available. Offering gratuities or tea money by patrons to secure a place for their offspring has been banned by law. Although considered excellent, classroom sizes in these schools remain high (around 50 students per class is not unusual).

I imagined that teachers working in these establishments were better qualified and more dedicated than elsewhere and thus delivered a higher standard of education. The truth, however, seems to be that these teachers are often associated with prestigious universities and are thus abler to coach their students to pass entrance exams. If you get into one of these high schools, you’re almost sure to get into a good university. This emphasizes yet again the fact that Thai students aren’t in school to learn anything valuable for life; their only purpose for studying is passing exams.

Let me introduce you to some of my students. Aclaire (not real name) is a 15-year old student of mine who got into what is considered the top government high school. There are 47 students in her class. She says courses are difficult and students are required to study hard. Every student also has to join one of the many school clubs with choices ranging from the English club and the cooking club to the movie club and the music club. These clubs aren't just for fun. Aclaire joined the movie club and her first assignment was, together with four other students, to write a screenplay for a 15-minute murder mystery video that will be directed and produced by the club. Apart from going to school on weekdays, Aclaire also studies on Saturdays and Sundays. Extra English, chemistry, maths, Chinese, music and art classes keep her busy most of the weekend. Although this year all her school subjects (except English) are taught in Thai, her English is of a high standard because she used to be enrolled in an intensive English programme the previous years.

Nana (13) goes to a regular government school which is not considered exceptional. She is at the top of her class (51 students) when it comes to English grades, but she still takes extra lessons on Friday evenings. Her passive skills are quite good, but her active skills are sorely underdeveloped. Although she can make herself understood, she speaks very slowly, lacks confidence, hesitates often and thinks too long before speaking. She lacks fluency because she never needs to speak English, not even in class during an English lesson. She told me that during English lessons at school, her Thai teacher of English never speaks English at all. The only thing she does is explain the subtleties of English grammar in Thai. No wonder most Thai students don't have basic conversational skills. Although there might be some valid reasons why local teachers keep doing it their way, I think they deserve to be named and shamed more often if they underperform consistently. When asked what she does at the weekend, Nana guiltily admitted that she stays at home and relaxes, except for her piano lesson on Sunday. I was pleased to hear that she is allowed to be a normal kid.

Nene (8) goes to an international school and has needed lots of extra tuition over the last 18 months. I suspect she wasn't ready to study every subject in English, but she was thrown in at the deep end, possibly because her school was too lax when enforcing entrance criteria. Fortunately, thanks to the quality of education and the benefit of private lessons, she is already showing the beginnings of real fluency and speaks very naturally with a slight American accent. Her reading skills are still lagging behind, but have progressed light years compared to last year. Although she is one of my younger students, she is one of the most talkative and will often start a conversation without being prompted. She is a really sweet girl and a joy to teach. I’m pleased that she is actually learning useful skills at school and not just becoming a trained monkey who is good at taking absurd multiple choice tests. Of course, this is just how I see it from my limited western point of view.

An issue that has been discussed to death in teachers' rooms lately is the Thai culture course. This 20-hour course which costs from 4,000 to 8,000 baht now seems to be mandatory in order to obtain a teacher's license. Many teachers, especially the 'old hands' who have been in Thailand forever and often have a Thai wife and/or partner(s), have questioned the usefulness and relevancy of said course. As I haven't taken the course myself, it would be nice to have a reader or other columnist do a write-up of their experience undergoing it. I agree that it is important to know the cultural values of the country you're living in, so in that respect, the course might be interesting to newbies fresh off the boat. If it is, however, just a blatant attempt to make money at a teacher's expense or to assimilate all foreign educators by teaching them to sing the Thai anthem and to appreciate Thai classical dancing, then I would consider it another 'This-is-Thailand' scam.

A dress controversy has resurfaced at Thai universities. As you may or may not know, Thai university students are required to wear a uniform, consisting of a white blouse and black skirt (for girls and ladyboys) or white shirt and black trousers (for boys). If I remember correctly, girls' skirts shouldn't show more than a few inches of flesh above the knee and blouses should fit. Many girls seem to have a problem with this as, in the name of fashion, they deem it necessary to wear ultrashort mini-skirts, revealing just about everything but their knickers (especially when sitting down) and blouses fit for 12-year olds, i.e. two or three sizes too small.

There has been a lot of debate about this in society, in the press and even on Thai TV talk shows where female students heatedly defended their right to dress like sluts. As I am not a directly concerned party, I won't take sides. On the one hand, I'm not particularly into sweets or sugary snacks, but I don't mind some eye candy from time to time. On the other hand, from a teaching point of view, it can get awkward and irritating in the classroom when students invariably start clutching their imaginary cleavage or try to pull their skirt down whenever you come within a 5-metre radius.

I've attached a picture collage to give readers who don't live in Thailand an idea of what I'm talking about and judge for yourself. I strolled around a university neighbourhood armed with a camera, but couldn't locate many students. I then decided to check out the students' more natural habitat, namely the local shopping mall, and I had instantly more luck. Within a few minutes I had taken two dozen useful snapshots depicting current fashionable student apparel.

The questionable dress sense of Thai college students is not the only raging fashion controversy. Thais seem to have this bizarre idea that wearing dental braces is extremely attractive, possibly because girls flashing multi-coloured metallic grins are regularly featured in teen magazines, thus transforming the dental gear detested by western youths into a fashion statement. Needless to say that from a medical point of view, most teens (or even adults!) don't need to wear these monstrosities. Some, but not all, dentists might also be reluctant to prescribe them if they are unnecessary. Market forces, however, have brought braces within anyone's reach, as do-it-yourself kits can now even be purchased at local markets for very little money.

Scores of illegal dental clinics have also sprung up around popular teen hangouts where youngsters can have their cute smile ruined for a fistful of baht. To make matters infinitely worse, many of the outlawed low-quality braces glued on healthy teeth can cause sores on the gums and contain dangerous metals such as lead. I wonder what will be the next fad. Wearing an eye-patch? Having fake buckteeth fitted? Nothing would surprise me anymore. One thing that has remained unchanged over the years is the students’ favourite complexion: acceptable colours are pale, ashen, pallid, pasty, sickly white and anaemic; definite no-nos are tropically tanned, mysteriously mocha and sensually dark.

To end this month's column, here is my nickname of the month May 2008: Hygiene (girl, 12). What on earth were the parents thinking? Of course, it could be that I’m culturally ignorant and badly in need of the aforementioned workshop.


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