This year marks 450 years in the history of Rugby School, one of the oldest and most prestigious co-educational private schools in Britain. It also coincides with the launch of Rugby School Thailand where for the very first time, the Rugby brand and ethos will be established overseas. Expat Life met Nataphol Teepsuwan, Chairman of Rugby School Thailand and Lucinda Holmes, Chair of the Board of Governors of Rugby School UK to get the details of this momentous enterprise.
Yet another international school was foremost on our minds as we were ushered into a conference room at the Intercontinental Hotel Bangkok. There are almost 200 international schools here in Thailand, of which British curriculum schools are the majority. But Mr Teepsuwan is quick to point out – this is not just another international school.
Their unique proposition follows the British independent school model, and their campus is located well away from the centre of Bangkok with its traffic and chaos, on a sprawling 90 acre site amid birds and trees. A co-educational day and boarding school with a ‘House’ system and state-of- the-art facilities that will be the first in Thailand to provide an extended day, beginning at 8am and finishing at 6pm. The Rugbeian philosophy is that education should develop students not just academically but to the best of their potential, whether in sports, music, arts or drama, and also, equally, address the formation of their character, their moral values, and their social manners. In other words, ‘the whole person is the whole point.’
Mr Teepsuwan, who during his career as a Member of Parliament in Thailand had occasion to study the schooling system here, shares his deep passion for education with his wife, Taya Teepsuwan. She brings years of experience having been the youngest deputy governor of Bangkok covering education and sports, and having also managed Srivikorn School, a private school founded by her parents in 1962. After stepping away from the political limelight, both of them were keen to turn this passion into something tangible. And as parents to three children who attended UK schools (Brambletye Prep, Harrow, St Edwards Oxford), they are strong proponents of the British boarding school education. They spent four years immersed in studying the UK educational system and speaking to people. In 2015, Nigel Westlake came on board having previously served as Headmaster at Packwood Haugh and Brambletye Prep, both leading British prep schools. Their market research led them to conclude that they would need a partner – a top school with an impeccable reputation. One of the schools that they approached and presented to – Rugby – fit the bill in more ways than one. Mr Teepsuwan says, “We quickly realised that this was everything that we would want in a school, with a similar setup to what we were planning, and a shared sense of values. We were clear in our minds that we didn’t want a mere licensing deal. We wanted a true partnership with someone who understood our long term vision and would help us achieve it. Their senior management visited our site, saw our plans, and discussed at length with us the kind of programmes we would provide students.”
“A longer day allows more time for teaching and learning. ”
Ms Holmes recalls the meetings. “Over the years, we’ve been approached by many schools and prospective partners asking us to franchise the Rugby brand, and to be honest, none of them felt right. We are fortunate in that we’re under no obligation to branch out or make choices for purely monetary reasons. Our 450 year old brand is extremely precious to us and the board was reluctant to consider an expansion out of the UK. But the Wisdom Enterprise (the wholly owned Teepsuwan company) presentation blew us away. What was so attractive to us was that this was a school along the lines of what we understood and knew, which is that education cannot just be an academic hothouse. Out of everything that we have seen over the years, this was the vision that gave us pause.”
The key differentiating factors of Rugby School Thailand have been the enormous space and cutting edge facilities, as well as the distinctive extended day programme. “A longer day allows more time for teaching and learning,” noted Ms Holmes. “You do your homework at school but you also have time for music and theatre. You can take tennis or basketball lessons at the many courts on site; swim at either the 25 metre or the 50 metre olympic swimming pool; play rugby or football; take up rowing, cycling or golf, all whilst surrounded by stunning views!”
The boarding school system
In addition to being a day school, Rugby School Thailand will introduce the concept of voluntary residential boarding in 2018 for Year 3 to Year 13. Students can choose from three options – weekly boarder (five nights a week); day boarder (three fixed nights a week); or full boarder (every night returning home over breaks). Lucinda admits that there has been a rising interest in boarding since the Harry Potter books, with children eager to have the experience of belonging to Houses, and enjoying a camaraderie with their peers that I have to agree, is sometimes lost when you’re shuttled to and fro from an international day school in Bangkok traffic. Arranging playdates for my nine year old with his friends spread across our metropolis seems to sometimes require the coordinating skills of a CIA field operative!
Lucinda describes a conversation she had with a prospective Thailand parent whose family is up daily by 5:30am in order to get to school and work on time – a schedule familiar to many a Bangkokian parent. The afternoon commute is even longer as the traffic builds up. The mother was looking forward to the day that her children leave on a Monday morning, get a full productive week of academics and activities to return on a Friday and be at home over the weekend to enjoy nothing but quality time as a family.
The boarding school option is also appealing to expats who have multiple postings across the region as it provides a stable environment for their children through their academic years. Moreover, as Mr Teepsuwan notes, “Many Thais and families in the ASEAN region feel compelled to send their children to schools in distant countries at a young age in order for them to receive a stellar, holistic education. Now with Rugby School Thailand, they have the opportunity closer to home.” The school also welcomes students who intend to transition to UK schools at a later stage and would prepare them for the Common Entrance Exams and the admissions process, with the hope that given their experience here, Rugby School is among their top choices.
Then is Rugby School Thailand intended to serve as a feeder school to Rugby School UK I ask, to which Mr Teepsuwan categorically states that they have not asked, nor do they expect Rugby UK to have to take students from Thailand. But the goal is to ensure that the students here will be on par with their UK counterparts in academic and extra- curricular achievements and that they would naturally be an excellent fit there. Ms Holmes adds, “We anticipate it to be a partnership that has mutual benefits. Students could go from here to the campus there or vice versa through exchange programmes.
The world today is a different place and we should not be so insular. This is my first trip of what I hope will be many to Thailand. Five representatives from Rugby School UK will sit on the board here. We will have a bit of a shuttle system of senior management between the schools, especially so in the near term but ongoing as well. We plan to be deeply involved in all aspects to ensure success.”
The school will open this September, initially with their Pre-Prep (Nursery to Year 2) and Prep schools (Year 3 – Year 6). The older Prep groups of Year 7 and 8 and the Senior School (Year 9 – Year 13) will open in 2018. Staff recruiting and training has been jointly managed by the Founding Headmaster Nigel Westlake and Rugby School UK. They will launch with a teacher headcount of 14 to further grow and maintain a healthy student to faculty ratio of 10:1.
Westlake has received 700 applicants for the initial 14 posts, a record that he has not seen in his 30 years of teaching and headship. The process has been highly selective with interviews conducted at the Rugby School UK and selected applicants teaching Rugby School students to demonstrate their approach and methods. Ms Holmes attributes the strong interest, which even extends to current Rugby School staff, to the excellent package, accommodation and facilities on campus offered to teachers and their families.
“ We will be very conscious to support our students and also offer opportunities to the under privileged so that exceptional students from across Thailand can attend rugby and partake in its promise.”
90 minutes from Bangkok in the Chonburi province is a 500 acre site owned by the Teepsuwan family, of which the new school currently takes up 90 acres and will be the largest school campus in Thailand. The facilities, designed by the award winning Beaumont Partnership Architects, offer separate areas for the Pre-Prep, Prep, and Senior schools with all sorts of activities from golf to sailing, art studios to theatres, indoor running tracks to extensive playing fields.
And the Teepsuwan family is just getting started with their ambitions to build a world class, second-to-none learning environment. Subject to feasibility study they plan to construct an athletic training centre in the next year or two so the school can host inter-school tournaments. They hope to shortly bring on board, Sporting Clube de Portugal, the club that trained champions like Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo. There will be language studios where it will also be possible for interested students to speak, read, and write Thai.
“While we will be aggressive in providing the latest technology, we also want our students to be able to thrive without technology. Reading will be an important part of their daily routine here. Similarly, music will be key to everyone’s day and no pupil will leave Rugby without a fond musical memory,” declares Mr Teepsuwan.
He is relaxed when I ask about the returns he expects on his investment. “Rugby has a long history and we look to catch up. Our investment horizon is long term and we don’t expect an immediate commercial return. We are more focused on laying down the proper foundations for many lifetimes and many generations to come.”
Rugby School UK has a tradition of providing both merit and need based scholarships. Of their 800 students, 40% have some kind of financial assistance into the school with 10% of the students coming in with 100% bursaries, which means that everything from tuition and boarding, school trips and expenses are covered by the scholarship. “It is very important to us at Rugby and we were thrilled to learn about the bursary system that they plan to establish here too,” says Ms Holmes. Mr Teepsuwan also notes, “We will be very conscious to support our students and also offer opportunities to the under privileged so that exceptional students from across Thailand can attend Rugby and partake in its promise.”
Best school from day one
No expense seems to have been spared and the administration has high ambitions for the school to be the best in Asia.
When the headmaster Nigel Westlake was asked the question when, he paused for thought and then answered unequivocally, “From day one.”