HAVING been an educator in three countries over the past four decades, including 21 years as a headmaster and administrator of three international schools in Thailand, Keith Wecker of Bangkok International Preparatory School is returning to Australia for a well-earned retirement. Before leaving the kingdom, Keith spoke exclusively to The BigChilli about his experiences here and what advice he would give to parents considering sending their children to an international school.
Thailand has enabled me to gain significant professional and personal development in so many facets of the business of managing international education both within schools that I have been employed, as well as my role as the elected Secretary-General of ISAT (International Schools Association of Thailand). Additionally, my election onto the IB regional and international Heads committee, and a foreign chamber of commerce committee in Bangkok have broadened my perspectives significantly. The challenges and experiences gained in the international arena have far exceeded those that I would have likely achieved in my own country; I will be returning to a very ‘different’ place.
How do you rate Thailand’s international schools?
There are over 110 licensed international schools in Thailand and a significant number of these K-Grade 12 and Pre-schools would rival the best international schools in most countries throughout the world. This ‘rating’ is not just based on exceptional student academic success, but also on the professionalism of teachers, the state of the art facilities, supportive Boards of Directors, the exposure of the students to so many other nationalities and cultures, and the opportunity of interacting with other students at regional international competitions.
Do they achieve a higher success rate regarding university places?
Students graduating from international schools in Thailand generally only have one immediate goal – to attend the best universities available overseas, or within Thailand. The success rate is very high and very few students consider ‘working’ after the completion of Year 13/Grade 12; the expectation of students, parents and teachers is that the ‘natural progression’ is to enter university/college to commence a bachelor’s degree. Many more now go on to complete the transition to further study at the master’s level.
Notable students are not always the ones with the highest academic results. While there have been many high achievers, I think notable refers to many students who have developed skills, relationships and outcomes well in excess of their initial expectations.
What have been the major changes affecting international schools during your time in Thailand?
During the past 21 years, the most significant change in the international school arena in Thailand has been the successful proliferation of proprietary international schools which now represent over 90% of international schools in the country. The growth of these proprietary international schools – ranging from franchised names of famous UK/US well-
established institutions to private share holder owned and financed schools – has ensured healthy competition in all aspects of a quality educational programme.
Evidence of this has clearly been validated through the vast number of international schools in Thailand which have now gained external world-wide quality assurance through prestigious and rigorous accreditation agencies such as CIS/NEASC/WASC, as well as Thailand’s own Ministry of Education agency ONESQA. These benchmarks have been implemented in Thailand during this period of time.
Are more Thai students attending international schools than in the past?
Over the past two decades, the licensing and successful operation of proprietary international schools in Thailand has enabled more places to become available for Thai students to attend and gain a quality education. Equally, Thailand continues to attract more expatriates and whilst the total number of students attending international schools has increased significantly, many schools do set percentage quotas on Thai national enrolments.
What regulations have changed to allow this?
The Thai Ministry of Education, under its Private Schools Act of the early 1990s, initially set a quota of no more than 50% of Thai national students enrolment per international school. The regulations have not been enforced and this has enabled some very successful academic proprietary schools to operate with up to 85% Thai nationals and cater to the expectations of those Thai parents. There is a large proportion of both proprietary and not-for-profit international schools whose Thai student quota is in the range of 30-55%. However, many of the schools have between 25-40 different nationalities of students, thereby ensuring a multi-cultural environment.
So, in effect, Thailand’s international schools are now elite places of learning, as opposed to a venue for children of foreigners living in Thailand?
Before the 1990s Thai students were not in attendance in international schools unless they had a foreign passport. However, quality places of learning are now accessible for all the three main sectors of the market – expatriate children whose tuition is funded by foreign companies, wealthy Thai nationals, and foreign nationals who have settled in Thailand and are self funded fee payers, often with luk-krueng children.
Have standards at international schools improved over the years?
The standards of international schools have improved significantly over the past 20 years, primarily due to accreditation and availability to share information with other institutions worldwide.
What about standards at local schools during the same period?
The international association, ISAT, has forged stronger links with the Thai Ministry of Education over the past 20 years and many Thai officials are now aware of the innovative teaching and learning practices operating in international schools. International schools freely share this knowledge with Thai teachers and administrators of local schools who visit international schools or attend workshops.
Does the Ministry of Education set the rules for international students’ education, or are schools relatively free to set them?
The Thai Ministry of Education (MOE) has strict criteria for teaching licences, visas and work permits for foreign teacher registrations. All international schools must be initially licensed by the MOE and then are required to seek external international accreditation within six years of operation. However, the MOE allows schools to set their own curriculum, with the only obligatory requirement being that Thai nationals must study Thai language for five periods each week and foreign nationals to study Thai culture for one period per week.
How do you feel about children of wealthy families receiving a good education while those from the less-well-off do not?
A good education for a child is not just determined by wealth. Morals, ethics, values, compassion for others and a desire to succeed in life is very much depended upon the child’s motivation, ability to learn, and family environment, rather than just being taught in a prestigious institution.
Any obvious shortcomings in international education here?
International education in Thailand is booming – the greatest challenge of international administrators is to attract, recruit and retain top quality teachers in such a competitive environment, not just within Thailand but in SE Asia and East Asia.
Much has been written in various newspapers, magazines and guides within Thailand over the years about the 15-20 key aspects to consider as ‘reasons for choice.’ One of my wife’s master’s degree dissertations actually focused on this topic. Perhaps the most important factor is ‘the best fit for the child,’ rather than the most prestigious school.
Is it the same advice for Thai parents, and parents of mixed marriage?
Some children, especially 100% farang and third culture kids, apparently have a tough time adjusting to life after international school. What’s your advice?
Students who attend international school in Thailand are given a privileged opportunity to succeed in a supportive nurturing environment. My own three children adjusted quickly to the cultural aspects of schooling in foreign countries. However, it has been my experience and observation that when children return to their home countries after a significant time overseas, that ‘reverse culture shock’ requires a greater adjustment than ‘the initial transitional change.’ Social media nowadays enables ex-students to keep in contact but perhaps the most important factor for returning expats is to take the initiative in developing new local friends and relationships outside the ‘comfort zone’ of the so-called expatriate circle.
Do you think fees at international schools are excessive, or reasonable?
International school fees vary significantly and are indicative of a wide range of fiscal decisions, including facilities, land ownership/rental, class sizes and staff salaries. A quality product requires appropriate funding to ensure a successful business model supports the educational programme.
What do you consider your greatest achievement as an educator?
Having been an educator in three countries over 39 years, my greatest satisfaction has been helping promote the development and awareness of international education in Thailand and assisting in Thailand’s world positioning as a country of quality international education options.
Best and worst memories?
The best memories have always been the people – students, staff, parents, boards and other Thai people within the community. It is people who ultimately make things happen. The challenges, perhaps, have been dealing with the various disruptions to the children’s education – Asian financial crisis, SARS, bird flu, various political unrests and floods. But then again, Thailand has proven itself to be such a resilient country that it moves forward after every incident.
Have your experiences here made you a better person?
Most definitely. I believe I am now far more reflective, more tolerant of differences, and wiser on how my decisions impact on others.