The Sun Never Sets on British Schools

By Kurlantzick, Joshua | The Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Sun Never Sets on British Schools


Kurlantzick, Joshua, The Christian Science Monitor


The students at Harrow International School cut a typically British pose: They sport traditional English checkered suits and boater hats. They chirp about video games, horseback riding, and studying for Britain's A-level exams.

They also pay careful attention to a rule that's posted up and down the hallways of the school: "Fine for speaking Thai - 10 baht [23 cents]."

Harrow International may be the very model of a British public school, but it is located in Bangkok, and about half its students are Thai.

Such schools, which are akin to American private schools, are thriving across Southeast Asia. The British curriculum is under fire at home for being too traditional in the face of rapidly changing social and academic needs. But in Thailand and neighboring countries, the story is the opposite. The number of private schools following a British curriculum has grown exponentially in the past decade - as has their enrollment.

* At Dulwich International School, located on the Thai island of Phuket and built to represent the original school in London, enrollment has mushroomed to 460 pupils in 2000 up from 76 in 1996.

* At Harrow Bangkok, a branch of its famous British namesake founded in 1572, there is a long waiting list for places, headmaster Stuart Morris says, despite the fact that the school does not yet have a permanent campus in Thailand.

* Several renowned UK schools are setting up franchises in Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. British School Manila, a new institution in the Philippines, expects enrollment to double within five years.

Parents and teachers attribute the success of British education in Southeast Asia to educators' ability to offer the best of the British system, with its academic rigor and discipline, in a more- flexible setting.

"Here in Bangkok, we offer more than the UK schools. We take girls, we take day students, in order to cater to the Thai mind- set of wanting their children to remain close to the family," says Harrow deputy headmaster David Foster. "We try to be innovative in teaching our students about the local communities around the schools, so they are not out of touch with daily life outside the ivory tower."

That stuffy reputation has put the British school system in a negative spotlight over the past year, with charges that it perpetuates elitism and fails to adapt to trends in education.

The criticism was sparked in part by the case of Laura Spence, an outstanding student at a state-funded school who failed to get a place at Britain's Oxford University -but was accepted at Harvard University in the United States. After the Spence case became public, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, said the United Kingdom's education system was "an absolute scandal" and unable to change its traditional ways.

An inclusive approach

In Thailand, Harrow Bangkok encourages students to develop their own projects focused on studying their surrounding environment and culture. …

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