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Thai students in the UK – embassy knows best

Melanie Butler investigates the country’s secret to picking great language centres in Britain and keeping its students happy

The Royal Thai Government Office of Educational Affairs (OEA) has been looking after Thai students studying abroad for over a hundred years, and its expertise is second to none. The legendary Julia Plaistowe, senior adviser to the UK (OEA) team based at the Thai embassy in London, has decades of experience and unerring skill at picking great language centres.

Take, for example, the EL Gazette’s Centres of Excellence – the ranking of the top 10 per cent of language centres based on the British Council inspectors’ publishable statements. The Thai team began working with many of these centres years before the Gazette put together the rankings, and indeed before the British Council published the statements at all.

Asked the secret to picking a good school, Julia told the Gazette, ‘Look for a school that takes a genuine interest in each individual student, offers at least twenty hours of tuition a week but preferably more, feels warm and friendly, and possibly has a variety of courses to meet various requirements.

‘The general atmosphere when visiting a school and meeting the staff both academic and administrative is very important. We try and discover if the teaching is stimulating, challenging and interesting and like to talk to some of the students to see their reactions and see if they are lively and happy, so therefore enjoying their studies and stay. If a member of the staff has experience of living and teaching in Thailand and therefore knows about Thai students and the educational system, this is a bonus.’

It is about more than just the school. ‘Good accommodation is a must and any problems must be sorted out quickly with the minimum of fuss,’ she says.

The best schools, the Thais believe, take note of what the students say, and go to a lot of trouble to ensure they are satisfied. Indeed, over the years the OEA has learned that a school which dismisses any problem a student has, however small and inconsequential it seems to the school, is one to be avoided. Student feedback, says Julia, is invaluable, especially face to face. ‘We ask students to complete a short questionnaire, which is mainly tick boxes, but we prefer to chat to the students as one can then gauge much better their feelings and judgement.’

On the whole, the Thai team has found individual schools preferable to branches of a chain, largely because of the role of the principal. In an individual school the principal is ‘more committed to the success and happiness of the students and normally stays in the post longer’.

Indeed, research by the OECD, reported in Richard Days’ article in the November Gazette, shows that good school principals are key to success throughout the British educational system, and one of the main qualities that marks the UK out from other countries.

The problem, as the Thais have found, is that many small independent schools of English struggle in a world of aggressive marketing and cannot compete with the chains. In the end they may choose to merge with another school, or are swallowed by a large organisation, in which, as many members of the OEA put it, ‘the school is very apt to lose its individuality and the students can then just become “bums on seats”.’

Over the years they have built up a list of schools where students are successful and happy. Some of these are Centres of Excellence, but ‘others are those which our students like and where they do well’. Occasionally the OEA will refer to the British Council list of accredited schools of English to see if recent inspections have anything to say about needed improvements or excellence in various aspects, but ‘some of these inspections are several years old so they have to be taken with a pinch of salt’.

Recently the OEA has been disappointed to find an increasing number of private language schools put off by the high cost of gaining the highly trusted status needed to enrol students for more than eleven months. They have also noticed that fewer language schools are enrolling under-sixteens year-round because of the need for criminal records checks and the strict rules imposed by child welfare legislation on mixing under-sixteens with older students inside and outside the classrooms.

The Office of Educational Affairs is not only involved in choosing language centres; it also looks after 1,200 students studying in the UK on Thai government scholarships – everything from high A levels, through foundation courses for university entry and first degrees, to PhD students. The postgraduates are mainly officials, sponsored by either their departments or other government bodies, generally to study science and engineering.

For foundation courses the Thais find university language centres, usually at the institution chosen by the student for the degree, the best solution. However, with entry requirements at Ielts 5.5 or 6, some students fail to get the required level in time and cannot join their degree course, while other pass ‘and still find themselves with inadequate English despite their academic ability and therefore are unable to complete their studies’. The OEA feels ‘it is most important that universities demand a higher Ielts score before accepting students so they do not suffer from these problems,’ and they complain, ‘The universities are not interested in students who fail and seem only concerned in obtaining the money for their fees.’

The office also arranges English courses for about fifty to ninety high school students a year, although this year there are well over 160, ‘as we had more young scholars under a new initiative of the Thai government. In addition we do arrange English for our privately funded students – their parents sign a contract with the Office of the Civil Service Commission (our Head Office) – who are mainly at boarding schools and can be as young as eight, but they require a different type of language teaching.’

Whatever they are studying, however, ‘very good English is fundamental for success in studying in the UK and is a continuing learning process for natives and non-natives’, Julia Plaistowe points out. Indeed there is very little she and her team at the Royal Thai Government Office of Educational Affairs don’t know about the importance of English and how to find a good course, ‘but then we have been around for 130 years, which makes us rather unique’.