Choosing the Right Primary School in Bangkok

Tactile Sensory Play at our international kindergarten, Bangkok

Im am often asked the question by parents about the differences between bilingual schools and international schools in Bangkok. I am asked whether I think bilingual schools are an acceptable choice for their child’s primary schooling. These really are the only two acceptable choices in Bangkok, for an expat parent. As a head at an Early Years school, it is part of my responsibility to advise and suggest the most appropriate place to further our student’s education. This has actually become one of the hardest parts of my job to fulfil. It shouldn’t be this way however. It should be very easy, especially when you consider the vast quantity of schools in Bangkok.

There is a bilingual school that I do recommend on occasion and this most than likely due to the qualified western teaching staff that are employed there. The curriculum is clearly effective as I have seen more than enough evidence to indicate that the children are being guided and supported properly in their learning. Good bilingual schools can and do exist in the city but I think that is as much as I am prepared to stick my neck out and say. Whilst they can offer a far less expensive option to expat parents the odds of finding a quality school in this sector are, in my opinion, stacked against you. My personal viewpoints in this post are based on both first hand experiences as well as the numerous stories I have heard and read over the ten or so years that I have resided in Thailand.

I want to focus on the shortfalls of this type of education in Thailand in general. Everything that I say about the Bilingual school curriculums is also completely applicable to any school teaching the rather outdated English Program (EP) as well.

I will detail some poor teaching strategies used as well as some of the adverse effects that untrained non-professionals following archaic practices and pedagogy can have on a child’s learning. The stifling of creativity and the stunting of development, specifically in younger learners is rife in this type of schooling system and something that all parents should be aware of before making that all important leap in selecting a primary school for their child.

It is something, as I say, I am asked frequently and this tells me that generally parents living in Bangkok, both expat and Thai are simply not aware of. I had assumed, albeit naively, that the standard and quality of education in these schools were common knowledge. I therefore write in particular, for parents with little knowledge of the interior workings of schools in general as well as those parents new to Thailand.

One of the biggest and most important differences between international schools and bilingual schools in Bangkok, is the qualification and level of training of the teaching staff. International schools will employ trained and qualified teachers. They will often source directly from the pool of newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and experienced teachers from overseas however this isn’t always the case. Either way the recruitment and selection process is effective in finding quality teaching staff, in the same way as it would be in the U.K. or U.S.

Bilingual schools on the other hand, do not. They place emphasis on teachers who carry a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) qualification or simply on having a degree (of any kind) I myself used to be a ‘TEFL teacher’ and whilst it prepared me somewhat for teaching adults learning a second language, it really is a totally inappropriate qualification to arm oneself with when given the responsibility of teaching a class of children. The emphasis of the course is on the teaching of grammar and vocabulary and not at all focused on the learners as individuals.TEFL training and degrees simply do not make a professional teacher.

I want to share some of my knowledge and experience about teaching styles that differ in these types of schools. I want to draw particular attention to possibly the two most important aspects of teaching itself that non-professionals frequently fall short on: ‘assessment’ and ‘differentiation’. These two elements are so incredibly important to the understanding, support and guidance of a child’s development, that it makes me shudder to think that I was teaching unaware and blind for so many years.

What is Differentiation?

Every child in every class should come away from a lesson having learnt something new or having developed a skill in some way. This is no easy feat. Setting different objectives and teaching in different methods and styles to suit different learners to ensure all make progress. This is ‘differentiation’.

Lets imagine a maths lesson taught to a kindergarten class by an untrained teacher. The teacher will generally teach a lesson objective to the whole class, pitched at one ability level. This level will at best, be pitched to the level of the majority of children in the class, aiming the work to the middle or median standard. There will be some learners that will already know the subject matter being taught. There will be some children that achieve the learning objective in a matter of minutes. There will be some learners that miss the objective altogether and by the end of a 40-60 minute lesson, are none the wiser and have learnt nothing. The later group will most likely have taken a hit to their confidence, become more disengaged with the subject and/ or teacher and will simply be bored.

For the higher-ability children, boredom, of course, would have also set-in 40 minutes ago at the start of the lesson. They have had to endure all that wasted time, with no challenge and no development. They haven’t been pushed and their knowledge or skill base has not been extended  in any way. In this example, I am giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt and assuming a well structured lesson is delivered that challenges the majority of the children. You can imagine that this best case scenario is not being played out regularly however.

This is just one lesson. Now imagine what might happen if your child does not fall in the median ability range of the class, and this process of developmental inadequacy is repeated in every learning session of the day, every day of the term, all year, every year. I personally  wouldn’t be taking that risk as a parent.

Managing classes of 20 to 30 children in any country, takes a lot of training and a great deal of passion. It is an extremely hard job to control this number of children alone, as I am sure any new parent can easily imagine. It is the reason that teacher training is as thorough, rigorous and gruelling as it is. It simply has to be. This job is not only about teaching pedagogy but about child psychology.

A child’s mind is an incredibly precious thing. Understanding their likes and dislikes, what makes them happy, sad and scared, the learning styles that best suit their character, the resources that are most likely to engage them in an activity, are all factors that should be taken into consideration and which should inform the teacher’s choice of activities and teaching style. Forming good, trusting relationships, just as with adults, can be extremely difficult at times, but ultimately one of the most conducive elements to effective teaching in the learning environment. Poor teaching can leave scars on a child’s psyche that will show through their time in education and possibly throughout their adult lives too.

Differentiation shouldn’t be limited to just teaching either. Effective assessment also needs to be differentiated, particularly in the Early Years. Some children don’t perform well in formal exams and tests. If a teacher knows that a shy child can count to 10 as a result of observations  during play, isn’t that enough? If a child with undeveloped motor skills struggles to write a word, that doesn’t mean that they cannot spell. Tests are generally long too. If they are longer than the time that a child can realistically concentrate for, then how is that a fair test? What is the school really testing for?

What is effective Assessment?

Some parents might think that since their child’s school assesses their child via ‘tests’ and ‘exams’ at the end of each school term that this amounts to good and valuable assessment. Personally I think this type of summative assessment is close to worthless; as a teacher. I can understand how, for parents that are not regularly involved in their child’s learning and developmental progress this is a useful insight into how their little one is doing.

There are a couple very important points to be raised here. Firstly in many bilingual schools in Thailand, children can’t fail an exam. They are simply not allowed to. I have never been able to work out from where this directive emanates. Whether it is formal school policy or simply something ‘expected’ of all teachers, ingrained through culture. Possibly the failure of a child reflects badly on them as a ‘teacher’ and therefore damages the school’s reputation.

I think it is important for parents to realise the ineffectiveness of this type of assessment for their child’s progress and development anyway, regardless of falsified results. Assessment should be regular and ongoing. A teacher’s daily planning should change and adapt as a result of the assessment of the children as a group and as individuals within that group on any given day. Even if only one child is not able to meet the learning objective, the next day’s plans should reflect this and allow that child to catch up. The activity should be altered and adapted. Thought should be given to a better and more effective teaching strategy, ideally tailored to the preferred learning style of that child. At a minimum, specific individual questioning should be used to target the children that were not secure in their grasping of the learning objective or concept.

Ongoing ‘formative’ assessment should be done through effective questioning and observation. In early years settings observation of children during both teacher-led and child-initiated activities is paramount to understanding them as individuals., Play is a time when children are most relaxed and consequently when they are feel least threatened about getting things wrong in front of their peers. It is also a time when they are most creative. Play is therefore a very important time for assessment and should not be a time for the teacher to take a break. This is a time to watch and plan. A time to formulate strategies based on behaviours and dynamics within the group.

The important thing to keep in mind here, is that a good teacher will adapt planning and a poor teacher will continue following a pre-planned curriculum so as not to fall behind with the school’s targets and demands, ultimately missing the entire point of good education.

A good teacher will find new ways to reach all the children in the class, whether that involves physical movement, a change of environment, interactive or sensory resources or the use of ICT.

Any international school in Bangkok that employ a qualified staff will teach, assess and differentiate activities to suit the learning needs of all of the children in a class. When this standard of educational understanding and care is taken, combined with a small class of children, qualified, experienced and effective teaching assistants, it is easy to see just how much more tailored the attention your child will receive. What any parent or educator ultimately seeks to achieve, is to strengthen a child’s confidence and nurture their enjoyment of education and their passion to learn. It is shameful when an institution restricts this from happening  and prevents teachers from carrying out their professional responsibilities.

Whilst I think this post comes partly from a point of view of a head-teacher, frequently battling misconceptions by parents on this very subject matter, but mainly as a trained teacher with some truly hideous experiences of life in the bilingual and EP schooling systems in Thailand.  Discrimination against skin colour, ability, special educational needs and just about everything else going takes place in some of these classrooms on a daily basis. Talents not being spotted and nurtured, learning disorders missed though inattention or ignorance, creativity stifled and serious psychological impairment are all factors that should also be considered by parents when choosing a school of this type. A few children will undoubtedly excel in these conditions however it will be a very low percentage.

The choice for me is a no-brainer. However throughout this post I haven’t once touched upon the subject of fees. The cost of a quality education in Bangkok can be astronomical. That is speaking as a school head with an extensive knowledge of the competition. The fees at some of the big internationals are so incredibly high that I do completely understand why I am often asked about other education options.

If cost is indeed the deciding factor for parents, then research well, ask the right questions, inspect the children’s levels, speak to the children if you have the chance and don’t forget to check the teacher’s qualifications.