Thailand’s international school community is growing, prompting the question: Is Thailand’s fascination with international schools setting up the next generation to fall victim to a whitewashed education?
Schools tout advertisements that are disproportionately white as a result of explicit deals for “Western students” as an “international community”. It is a common unspoken agreement within the Thai education community that white teachers receive a certain amount of privilege compared to their native peers. Comfortably getting away with discrimination, these schools could be better described as businesses rather than schools. Despite most international schools not reporting their profit margins, a 2019 report states that profits range from 7% to 50%. The Office of Private Education Commission is responsible for regulating these costs, but they remain unaware and typically do not intervene unless receiving a direct complaint.
As the Thai middle class increases, so does the upper class desire to align themselves more closely with foreigners. But it is clear which foreigners they are looking to align with. Upon further inspection, schools in Bangkok that advertise discounts for “international students” will state in fine print that they mean students from European countries, the US, the UK, and Australia. It is not difficult to infer the demographic they are hoping to reach.
This stratification of privilege is also found within staff hired by international schools. Native Thai teachers are expected to make a salary a mere fraction of their non-Thai Western counterparts, while other ASEAN teachers generally make even less. Schools will advertise for Filipino teachers, acknowledging lower pay with an expectation of the same certifications. Despite the pay disparity, Filipino teachers made up nearly one-third of the teaching population in Thailand in 2015. Teachers coming from the US or Europe will typically expect a better work-life balance, and if that expectation is not met, they can easily find a position in another school.
One of the key factors in academic success is consistency, something difficult to maintain within Thai schools facing teacher attrition. With a lack of experienced, contented teachers, students are often left with teachers using the international teaching position as means for a long-term visa. Students of teachers only here for a visa risk spending their time in a school devoid of local culture. The focus on a white, English-speaking teacher takes away from the curriculum, and the incredible detail of whiteness is not lost on the students.
The emerging generation of Thai children attending international schools is at risk of losing touch with the culture that surrounds them. They are indirectly taught the importance of a clear English accent as a tool to get out of Thailand. With little emphasis on Thai language skills, there are few opportunities post-graduation within the country. Thus, Thai students fall victim to the imbalance of cultures/languages within schools. Unless an international school student has a Thai-speaking adult at home, it would be difficult to master the language the way their bilingual school peers could.
In the last 10 years, the Thai government has placed a heavy emphasis on education growth. The newest development plan from the Ministry of Education cites their goal to have Thailand as a “developed” country by 2037. One of the strategies is to achieve a higher GNP based on increased investment in higher education. With a goal to create Thailand as a “hub of talent”, and private schools being regarded as businesses more than educational institutions, it is becoming increasingly clear who is and is not reaping the benefits of Thai education.
Former teacher at an international school