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. It also has a mandatory program of local studies, which includes Thai language classes.
"Some of the British schools in Southeast Asia seem to do a better job than their parents in Britain at modernizing in step with the times," says one Bangkok-based educational consultant.
Somewhat surprisingly, Britain's colonial history in Southeast Asia seems to help boost enrollment figures.
"Certainly the brand name of British schools helps," says Paul Beresford-Hill, headmaster of Bangkok Patana School, another British-curriculum institution in the Thai capital. "Though some Southeast Asian states resented the British for taking over the region, people always recognized the quality of British educational systems."
Mr. Beresford-Hill notes that many parents welcome the fact that British-style schools don't emphasize rote learning to the extent that many Asian ones do. The Singapore-based research firm Strategic Intelligence recently released a report castigating Southeast Asian public schools for teaching by rote and failing to prepare children to use information technology, communicate with the wider world, and think for themselves.
"Parents realize these international schools offer kids the best chances to learn high-level English and computing skills, which are tickets to university overseas and a better job," Beresford-Hill says.
According to Malaysian government statistics, the former British colony sent some 14,000 students to UK universities during the 1999 academic year. Singapore and Thailand also are two of the leading exporters of students to British institutions of higher education.
One area where the schools come in for criticism is cost. Some observers argue that the schools far overcharge for the services they provide.
"Compare the number of teachers at these Asia British-curriculum schools who have graduate degrees and 10-plus years of experience with the numbers at schools in the UK, and the schools in Asia come out badly," says a journalist who studies international schools in Southeast Asia. "Yet the schools in Asia charge $8,000 to $10,000 per year, an exorbitant price."
What's more, some leaders argue that having so many top students attend British and other international schools thins the talent pool at public schools and weakens local universities, since many graduates aspire to attend college abroad.
That said, some observers suggest the schools have important lessons to share - both with local schools and with UK counterparts.
"My daughter could never go to [all-male] Harrow in Britain, and if my son went there he would be stuck in a system still so focused on molding kids into a group ideology, making them like all other Harrow students," one Harrow Bangkok parent says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society