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.
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.