All Thais should spend at least the first 10 years of their lives in Thai schools,” according to Khunying Chodchoy Sophonpanich, daughter of the late founder of Bangkok Bank, Chin Sophonpanich. This is a fairly shocking statement considering the proliferation of international schools in Thailand which are largely supported by the elite of Thailand, including the Sophonpanich family. However, Khunying Chodchoy stands by her opinion and the story which led her to believe this so strongly is quite an interesting journey. Financial magnate, philanthropist, heiress, sportswoman, senator, marketer, environmentalist, ASEAN Games medalist, mother and grandmother are all words that could label this widely accomplished 74 year old woman, but she’s not stopping there, she’s working diligently to add educational reformer to her impressive list of credentials. Chodchoy’s distaste for the push towards international schools isn’t an arbitrary fight against the system.
She has solid reasoning rooted in her own schooling and grown from her myriad life experiences. At first look, one would assume that because of her father’s glittering business success that she enjoyed only the finer things in life, including an international education. But in fact, she attended Thai schools for the first nine years of her life unlike other “statused” children of her time. This local education, she believes, is what uniquely positioned her to be such a successful adult in Thailand. Spending her formative years in the Thai system is what allowed her to connect with Thailand on a much deeper level than other privileged children who were immediately swept away to foreign countries or schooled by a foreign governess. Nearly 50,000 Thai children are enrolled in close to 200 international schools across the Kingdom. Her beloved connection to Thai culture is what she believes international schools are robbing Thai children of.
The disconnect from their mother culture will ripple into the future and jeopardise business, tradition and the very way of Thai life. The Thai language, culture and history requirements of international schools are so minimal that many of these Thai children only know how to read and write their mother tongue in the most rudimentary way. They learn about the customs and traditions of Western cultures rather than their own. English replaces Thai as a first language and the children know more about Christmas and Abe Lincoln than Macha Bucha Day and King Chulalongkorn. But, they can speak competent English…
They become a third culture of sorts, fundamentally disconnected from being Thai but not quite a foreigner. Chodchoy questions whether the price of speaking good English outweighs the fading ‘Thainess’ of these students. She questions what effects this will have on the country as a whole if the elite continue to disconnect themselves from the rest of the country. And she questions whether this recent burst of international schooling is really in the best interest of the country she loves. With all of that being said, Chodchoy does not blame parents for choosing to send their children to international schools; after all, she was sent abroad to Australia for her high schooling and university education and she sent her own children and grandchildren to international schools.
She’s well aware of the apparent hypocrisy of her stance on this matter considering her own path. However, she is adamant that if the Thai school system could offer a world class education, especially at the primary level, she would be the first to enrol her grandchildren. So rather than sitting in an ivory tower and railing on the education system, she has used her power, influence and financial means to do something about it so that parents in the future can have the choice that she never had. She wants to provide the option of excellent Thai public schools so parents aren’t backed into a corner with international schools offering the only viable option for a high-quality education.
Chodchoy is not a trained educator nor does she claim to be one, but she is a master networker and businesswoman. Her skill lies in her ambition and her ability to recognise a problem and bring the right people together to solve it. In the 70s she was responsible for bringing the first credit card to Thailand (Diner’s Club). As she said, “If I can change a country’s mind about using credit cards, why can’t I change people’s minds about our antiquated approach to education?” Aside from English fluency, one of the major differentiators between a Thai approach to education and an international approach is the learning environment. Thai schools are teacher centred; the teacher tells and the students do, no questions asked. The modernised and better approach to education is a student-centred learning environment, which is completely absent in Thai schools.
Thai teachers are taught the theory of student-centred learning in their teacher colleges, but they are not encouraged to use it or given any practical approaches for how to implement it. As a result, the status quo of rote memorisation and “teacher knows all” is still the standard across the Kingdom. This approach will not educate children for the future, it will only set them further behind in a world that increasingly demands greater capability for problem solving and critical thinking. To solve this problem, Chodchoy brought together the British Council, international schools like Bangkok Pattana and other highly qualified educators to create a programme that re-trains Thai teachers on how to create a student-centred learning environment within a Thai classroom.
Her programme is called Thai Schools of Excellence and focuses on Bangkok Metropolitan Area (BMA) schools at the moment. At first, she faced major pushback from the schools because the BMA schools regarded the approach as a “highbrow” tactic that wouldn’t serve their lower income students well. But over time, her team demonstrated the value of student-centred learning and provided them the necessary support and training to effectively implement it in their classrooms. Started 10 years ago, the Thai Schools of Excellence programme now serves 62 schools in Bangkok and has just entered its first teacher’s college.
As in any type of reform, progress is slow. Because of the intensive and transformative nature of this approach, they can only train 20-30 teachers per semester. There are several components involved in the re-training. First of all, teachers are not forced to join the programme; if they want to join, they must choose to improve themselves. Teachers undergo a nine day training during their school break and then write a proposal about how they want to apply the new strategies into their classrooms over the following 6 months.
They have a physical clean-up day for their classrooms where they literally re-arrange the set-up of their rooms to foster a more student-centred atmosphere. The teachers are also taken to international schools to observe how classes are being taught. During the transformation period, the teacher trainers follow the trainees into the classrooms to provide support and guidance. At the end of the programme, teachers are asked to reflect on the experience. The programme aims to become self-sufficient by completing the circle when teachers who have finished the full programme are asked to come back and train the next batch of eager educators.
To date, there have been over 2000 primary school teachers who have gone through the programme. So, what does Khunying Chodchoy hope for the future of Thai education? She hopes that the country that she loves so much can provide an education to its youth that will preserve the rich Thai culture as well as prepare them for the demands of the modern world. As she sees it, there’s no reason why these two demands can’t co-exist. A fierce competitor with a soft side, if Thai education has Chodchoy on their team, they can expect to start winning gold medals soon.