This Week in Asia

Even amid coronavirus, Thailand's international schools eye rosy post-pandemic future

If it were not for Bangkok's international schools, Patima Jeerapaet's children might never have developed a proficiency in English, nor learned analytical thinking. And without the challenge of an international curriculum, he said his son might never have gone on to pursue university-level business studies in Britain.

For Patima, a real estate consultant whose company specialises in the sector, Thailand's international schools offer a level of academic excellence not seen in the state education system, with its focus on repetition and memorisation. By encouraging young people to think outside the box, international schools open up more opportunities for them, he said.

Thailand boasts a booming international schools sector that draws students and investors from across Asia and the wider region. It has grown from just a handful of schools in the early 1990s to more than 250 today with upwards of 84,000 students and 9,000 teaching staff, according to a report published in November by market research firm ISC Research.

Curriculums on offer run the gamut from the International Baccalaureate to American, British, French, Singaporean and Japanese - and despite the coronavirus pandemic, which saw all the country's schools shut schools from March to June, analysts seem confident about the sector's future. Chinese investors are looking to enter the market now too, especially in the Chiang Mai area.

A teacher and students at a school in Chiang Mai wear hats designed to help practice social distancing to curb the spread of coronavirus. Photo: AP

With tuition fees ranging from about 200,000 baht (US$6,400) per year at kindergarten level to almost 1 million baht for secondary school, the sector certainly promises bumper profits. Nationwide, enrolments increased 30 per cent from 2012 to 2018, according to ISC Research.

In the past, Thailand's government imposed limits on the number of Thai students that could attend international schools, but nowadays the likes of the Denla British School in Nonthaburi cater mostly to local families.

Temyos Pandejpong, board director at the Thai-owned school that teaches a British curriculum, said more than 80 per cent of its students are local, though efforts are made to attract a diverse mix of nationalities.

Since it opened in 2017, Denla has been approached by investors from China, India and the Middle East who have sought partnership opportunities, Temyos said.

"Thailand is a hub for foreign businesses and travellers and many local parents are not satisfied with the state school system," he said, adding that as well as academic rigour "international schools offer more support for creativity, self-discovery, extracurricular activities and English language skills".

The pandemic has made an impact on the school's cash flow as online classes had to be offered at a 30 per cent discount, Temyos said, and enrolments were down by as much as 40 per cent this year thanks to the one-two punch of coronavirus travel restrictions and a looming global recession.

Similar disruptions have also plagued the planned August opening of Verso - a 5 billion-baht (US$160 million) joint venture between Thai conglomerate BTS Group Holdings and Hong Kong education firm Fortune Hand Ventures - with some foreign families who had enrolled their children now finding themselves unable to relocate.

That has not deterred founding school head Cameron Fox, however. "Thailand has great potential for international companies to be here and there is a growing demand from the local population who want access to a level of schooling that's very, very high," he said.

In future, the country could even position itself as a regional education hub, Fox said, with "school students moving here solely for an education. You can have one parent working in another country and family stay based in Bangkok".

For Fox, the pandemic "has shown the world in the last several months how fragile our school systems are".

"As we look to the future we see a lot of potential for volatility. Universities are not cocoon," he said. "This year, many students will not be able to take up the offer at university. You'll see the closing down of international students' choices. You have got to have a mindset that allows you to be adaptive, that is not fixed. Traditional schools are linear in focus. You need to open that up a lot more."

Yet even amid a coronavirus crisis that is hindering attempts to hire more teaching staff and casting doubt on the feasibility of in-person tuition, analysts foresee much potential for the international schools sector in Thailand.

A student uses her tablet to study at her family's flat in Bangkok. In-person tuition has been called into question by the pandemic. Photo: AFP

Patima, the real estate consultant, said it usually takes about a decade for those funnelling money into international schools to see a return on their investments, so many are minded to take a long-term view - especially "if the vaccine becomes available and Thailand promotes safety and attractive investment packages".

International investors are still seeking opportunities to acquire plots of land for new schools despite the pandemic, he said, and a number of large-scale education investments are already in the pipeline.

One such project from Thai developer Country Group Development envisages a new international school for 1,750 students as part of a mixed-use residential development in the south of Bangkok. Last year, its construction was expected to be completed by 2023 - though how the coronavirus pandemic has affected this is unclear.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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