Ten years of living in Thailand and working as a teacher and manager at some of Thailand’s leading language schools had given me an insight into the differences between the Thai and English education systems. However, it wasn’t until the time came to start thinking about a kindergarten for my 3-year-old son that I realized just how vast these differences actually were.
When I was a child in England, kindergarten was not really an option. Of course, this was back in the Dark Ages when the women stayed home and looked after the kids while the men went out and did manly things like wrestling woolly mammoths. Nobody went to kindergarten - at least nobody that I knew.
With the changing roles of women in society, more kids are going to kindergarten than ever before, and it is no different in Thailand – maybe a few steps behind but not different. Certainly in Bangkok, most families send their young ones to nursery schools, although it is much less common in rural areas and with poor families who have migrated to Bangkok from the provinces.
It is not an uncommon sight across Thailand to see young children of poor families making their own amusement while their mother works nearby selling som tam or labouring on a building site. Mildly disturbing as this is to Western sensitivities, these children do, at least, enjoy some freedom to play. It is, however, a pitiful reflection on a Buddhist nation of child-lovers that some poor children are forced to work as beggars on the streets of Bangkok. Worse still is the fact that the authorities allow this shameful practice to continue. We are by no means a rich family, but seeing such deplorable treatment of children makes us appreciate just how fortunate we and our son truly are.
When my wife, Pim, first mentioned sending our son, Tommy, to kindergarten, I was initially reluctant. However, I was soon persuaded of the benefits. For a start, it was a chance for Tommy to interact and play regularly with other children. Then there were the educational benefits. After just one term, his ability to read, write, speak and listen in both Thai and English has grown tangibly.
It’s actually amusing when Thais comment on how clearly he speaks Thai. He may look like a farang, but Tommy is Thai born and bred. As much as I communicate in English with him, he already speaks the simplified Thai version of English.
The third benefit was that it would give Pim a much-needed break. We resisted the temptation to hire a nanny and Pim, being a full-time housewife, stays home and looks after Tommy while I go out and do manly things like conjugating verbs (woolly or otherwise).
So once I had warmed to the idea, there was the simple matter of choosing a kindergarten. In England, you just go to the school nearest your house, but in Thailand things are never that simple.
We basically had three criteria for choosing a kindergarten. First, it had to be reasonably close to where we lived. Second, the environment of the school was important. We wanted a place where Tommy could not only learn, but also enjoy the experience. The third criterion was money.
And so the search began. I employed my hunter instinct and headed straight to Google. The learning began immediately as I quickly discovered that most Thai nurseries don’t have websites. With my attempts thwarted, Pim resorted to the traditional technique of “asking around”. It worked.
We drew up a shortlist of three private Thai kindergartens that were reasonably close, had a good reputation, and were in our price range of under 20,000 baht per term.
After calling all three, I quickly found out that our first choice was actually a good deal more expensive than we could afford. The other two were similarly priced and so we made an appointment to go to the one nearest our home.
From our apartment, the school was just a 10-minute walk through the warren of backstreets south of Sathorn Road. As we looked around, we both got a good feeling for the place. It was the holidays so there were no teachers around, but the general ambiance was warm and inviting. There was a well-equipped playground, a music room and class sizes were kept at a maximum of 16 to 20.
Impressed by what we had seen, we made the decision to enrol Tommy in this school without visiting the other one on our shortlist simply because it was too far from our apartment to get there on foot.
While Tommy began to familiarise himself with the slides in the playground, Pim and I sat down with the headmistress in her office. It felt a little strange to be sitting in a headmistress’s office and not be in trouble. It’s funny how parenthood sneaks up on you gradually like that.
I already knew that, in addition to not having a website, the school didn’t accept credit cards so I had the 15,000 baht in my wallet ready to pay. This being Thailand, however, there were several forms to be manually filled in before we got to that stage.
The questions were pretty dull and predictable until one came at me out of leftfield. “What religion is your son?” inquired the sweet old spinster-type schoolmistress.
What religion is he? I was taken aback. He’s three years old. He can’t write his own name yet. He’s a bit young to be making decisions like that, isn’t he? It’s like asking him which political party he favours or whether he is straight or gay? I knew he supported Leeds United, but it would surely be a few years before he was making decisions about religion.
The headmistress sensed my pause and, as is required by the laws of the universe in such situations, raised her line of vision to peer at me over the top of her spectacles. In response to my bemusement and hesitance, she prompted me with a smile. “Is he Christian?” she asked. I knew that the headmistress was herself a Christian because the time of our appointment had been dictated by her Sunday morning visit to church.
Is he Christian? I was lost for words. I had to say something. “Erm, I think he’s Buddhist,” I said looking at my wife for help. “Buddhist,” she repeated with an unconvincing nod.
With the issue of religion resolved, at least for the next couple of years, it was time to pay. This was when I was taken aback a second time. In addition to the term fee, there was a registration fee of 1,500 baht. Then there was the question of how many uniforms we wanted to buy. None, I thought honestly, although I knew I had more chance of persuading the old dear that Tommy was a pagan high priest than getting out of this one.
I, like most Westerners, am strongly opposed to school uniforms, feeling that they discourage individual expression. Unlike the West, Thailand is, however, a collective society where the emphasis is placed on teamwork rather than individual achievement. Uniforms are worn from kindergarten to university in Thailand.
When conducting language proficiency placement interviews with university students, I would often ask them what they thought of school/university uniforms, fully expecting to hear my own thoughts reflected. I was surprised that the unanimous consensus among Thai students was in favour of uniforms. It seems that there is a sense of pride among Thai students of showing that they belong to a certain school, something that is particularly true with academic institutions that have a prestigious reputation.
There was no point me even mentioning my own thoughts on uniforms, so I passed this question over to Pim. It turned out that we needed standard uniforms for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Friday was sports day, so we needed a sports kit for that day, while Wednesday was a kind of free day, which meant the children could wear what the headmistress referred to as “a Songkran costume” of our own choosing.
OK, so we know what religion Tommy is and how many uniforms we have to buy. Now, can I pay? No. Not yet.
I was about to be taken aback a third time. “Would you like your son to be enrolled in any classes?” asked the headmistress.
Would you like your son to be enrolled in any classes? Hadn’t we just enrolled him in the school? You mean we have to pay extra if we want you to teach him anything? The answer to that is, basically, “yes”.
Apparently, Thai is the only real subject covered in the standard curriculum. Other than that, it’s playing, drawing, sleeping and all the other usual things that a three-year-old does.
From a list of extra classes, we picked English and Computer Studies at an additional 1,400 baht each. When all was added up, our total bill came to near enough 20,000 baht.
Now that Tommy has finished his first term, I can’t help feeling that it was all money well-spent and all our three criteria were met. I walk Tommy to school every morning and he not only loves going there, but he has also learnt a lot during his first term.
There are two final points that I still find hard to deal with, however. Tommy, at 3 years old, is given homework on a daily basis. In contrast, I did not receive my first homework until I started secondary school at the age of 11. Also, after just one term, he has had to sit his first tests. While he doesn’t fully realise what the tests are, it seems rather perverse to me that a child should be appraised in such a manner. Unfortunately, tests and homework are something that Thai children are forced to get used to at a very early age, it seems.