A Continuing Influence - British Schools in Southeast Asia

By Kurlantzick, Joshua | The World and I, October 2001 | Go to article overview

A Continuing Influence - British Schools in Southeast Asia


Kurlantzick, Joshua, The World and I


Throughout the school's long corridors, small groups of students, dressed in traditional English blazers and boater hats, gathered to catch up on the day's events and talk about plans for the weekend. Students chattered about playing video games, practicing horseback riding, finding dates, watching the Manchester United soccer team, preparing for upcoming sports competitions, and studying for Britain's A-level exams.

In the hallways of this seemingly typical British "public" school-- Britain's public schools are akin to American private schools--several signs were displayed. "Fine for speaking Thai: 10 baht [$.23]," they declared.

The signs were relevant. This "British school"--a two-story building located in an ultramodern condominium development--actually was Harrow International School Bangkok, and roughly half its students were Thai. Under fire at home, British-curriculum schools are gaining popularity in Southeast Asia, where some parents and teachers believe they are making changes that the region's curricula need.

An educational paradox

Over the past year, the British school system has been criticized severely for perpetuating elitism and failing to adapt to trends in education, such as making classrooms more child centered. The controversy over schools in Britain has been highlighted by the Laura Spence case, in which Spence, an outstanding student at a comprehensive (state-funded) school, failed to get a place at Oxford but was accepted at Harvard.

After the Spence case became public, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said the United Kingdom's education system was "an absolute scandal" and unable to change its traditional ways. Commenting on British schools' inability to employ modern techniques, Sigmund Prais, an education expert, has said: "English pupils' attainments in mathematics provide no grounds for the expectation--fairly widespread a generation ago--that England's schooling as such is to set the country at the international forefront of scientific and technological progress." Consequently, in his campaign for reelection this spring, Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to make education reform one of the central themes of his Labour Party's second term.

In Southeast Asia, however, schools following a British curriculum have flourished by mixing traditional academic rigor with a willingness to incorporate local traditions.

The number of British schools, and their enrollments, has grown exponentially in the past decade. Although all charge fees to study, the schools have innovatively adapted to their environments. For example, Dulwich International School, located on the southern Thai island of Phuket and built to represent the original school in London, has grown from 76 pupils in 1996 to 460 in 2000. At Harrow Bangkok, a branch of the famous British institution founded in 1572, there is a long waiting list for places, according to headmaster Stuart Morris. Harrow's enrollment figures have risen faster than expected, although the school does not yet have a permanent campus in Thailand.

Meanwhile, several renowned UK schools and universities are setting up franchises in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian nations. British School Manila, a new institution that has opened in the Philippines, expects enrollment to double within five years. When Britain's Prince Andrew embarked on a recent tour of Southeast Asia, he made sure to visit a British school located in a Manila suburb and visited similar educational institutions in Singapore.

What's more, the British Council, the UK's international organization for educational and cultural relations, has begun holding education "festivals" in Bangkok and other Southeast Asian capitals, in which local students learn about universities in Britain and receive advice on how to win admission to UK higher education. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Asia is the world's biggest potential market of consumers for private education; consequently, British schools in the region may have significant room to grow. …

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