Triam Udom Suksa: Gateway to academic excellence or educational inequality?


Do top schools serve as catalysts for educational inequality in Thailand?

Triam Udom Suksa, arguably the best high school in Thailand, made the headlines recently when more than 11,000 students came from different parts of the country to compete for a mere 1,100 seats.

Despite being like this for decades, Thai social media was buzzing far louder this year with comments about how it reflects and promotes educational inequality and academic elitism, creating unnecessary stress for children.

As an alumna of the school myself, there are some things I agree with and some I don’t.

I still remember the chills when I, like many other middle schoolers of my time, sat the entrance exams and nervously waited for results. I also remember the joy I felt when I saw my name on the list of those admitted. It far outstripped the happiness I felt a few years later when I knew I had made it to my dream college.

In Thailand, it is believed that if you “make it to Triam Udom, you already have a foot in Chulalongkorn”.

Chulalongkorn University, along with Thammasat and Mahidol, often tops the list of best universities in Thailand. So, making it in a high school that is seen as a door to one of the top universities in the country is certainly a big moment for students and their parents.
Studying at Triam Udom was great fun, especially for those seeking academic challenges. In my time, the school was divided into three main academic streams: Science and Mathematics, Language and Mathematics, and Languages, specialising in French, German or Japanese. Spanish, Korean and Chinese have recently been added to the curriculum.

The three-year high-school curriculum in Thailand aims to strengthen students with academic rigour in their chosen path and prepare them for university. Triam Udom was (in)famous for its ridiculously tough exam questions, especially in mathematics. It was a common joke among the students that unless you were born as a “God of maths”, chances are you would get at least one “hard maths” (advanced maths) question wrong.

Though it made many of us feel like we were never good enough, it still seemed to be part of a game we had to win back then. We, Triam students, were taught to familiarise ourselves with tough exam questions, so we could pass the university entrance exams with flying colours a few years later.

Many Triam Udom students, either worried because they really did not do too well or did not make a 100% score, would resort to after-school tutoring.

For someone who did not love maths, I still remember crying over one test that I failed despite mastering tonnes of practice questions. Though it seems quite silly now, it was quite a big deal at the time, because the school grade point average (GPA) played a small part in the university admission score. Not getting good grades was one thing, but the thought of being among the smartest at one of the best high schools and not being able to make it to a top university was shameful.

Yet despite the stress and struggle with these insanely tough exams, nobody seemed to question why we needed to do what we did. In the end, we just did it!

A new vision

Getting to spend one year as an exchange student in the United States, however, changed the way I saw things. It was then that I had some moments of realisation as well as questions about why the educational system there was so different.

In the States, students were not asked to choose their majors in high school, like we were made to do in Thailand. They were allowed to take and explore subjects that grabbed their interest, regardless of how different or contrasting they may be.
While at Triam Udom, a student could only concentrate on the major they were asked to choose before their admission, like language and maths in my case, I learned that in the US I could take a combination of anything, ranging from biology, computer graphics and history to chemistry and film analysis to find out what I would probably enjoy studying further.

During the four-year American high school system, there is not a single class one is not allowed to take and explore. This way, students have four years to discover themselves, drop anything they don’t like and do advanced classes in subjects they enjoy until it is time for them to go to university.

In comparison at Triam Udom, if I were to change my mind and want to study science or French instead of my chosen subjects, I would have to drop the entire year, retake the entrance exam and re-enrol as a fresh student.

Uncomplicated and trouble-free

Maths classes and examinations in the US are also far easier than in Thailand. Students are allowed to use calculators when necessary, and they don’t have to recite super long maths formulae either – they just need to learn how they can be applied and used. This no-fuss way of learning piqued my interest in maths in a way I had never felt before.

This is when I started wondering how much better it would be if Thailand had this kind of education – a system that gives students the freedom to explore and discover their interests and passions before deciding on a college major that is tied to something bigger and has a more lasting effect like a career path.

This also makes me wonder if the tougher-than-the-Olympiad school maths exams were truly necessary and if they really served as an appropriate push for students. I’m not sure why the school believes it is a good idea to keep giving exams in which more than half of the students, who are already working hard, will fail.

I have one very smart friend who decided after high school to never have anything to do with maths again due to her experience at school. The thing is, she got very good grades, but seeing others in her programme get even better grades made her feel she was never good enough.

This is where I see the school has gone wrong – it demotivates students because they are made to believe that they are not good enough if they get 90 instead of 100%. Obviously, it also burdens them with a huge sense of imposter syndrome.

Of course, this doesn’t mean everything at Triam Udom is bad. During my time there, I realised that the school had what it takes to be an academically best school. I met with teachers and friends who I thought were among the smartest and most well-rounded individuals. English classes at Triam Udom were far more advanced than the traditional curriculum and far more interesting.
The school was nothing like what I had often heard people describing it as – a place where a bunch of nerds did no more than study and compete against each other.

In reality, Triam Udom is a big open space for creativity and social activities. Apart from excelling academically, the school facilitates and provides space and support for many clubs and activities for students.

But being the best school comes with massive expectations. It had to continue improving standards and quality in line with the ever-changing future.

The school can give notoriously tough exams and students trying to get in will fail anyway, but would it not be better in the long run if students were tested in a more moderate way that encourages them to learn and do better instead of just giving up?

Challenges can be fun, but at the very least, I don’t think students should go into these exams thinking they will fail because it is too difficult even for better-than-average students. Sitting for exams that are sure to fail more than half the students can create unnecessary stress and should not be normalised.

Too young to choose

Also, would it not be better, not just for the school but also for the Thai education system as a whole to grant more freedom to students to explore rather than have them choose a subject before entering high school?

Students at the age of 15 are too young to know exactly what they want to do or focus on. They should be given the freedom to discover all the subjects to see what they truly want to do with their lives rather than wasting time and doing the whole thing all over again if they find their first choice wrong.

I will not go so far as to say that a school that focuses on academic excellence widens the gap of educational inequality. Some say that students with rich parents have a competitive advantage over poorer students to get into better schools because they can afford expensive tutors or learning materials. However, I feel that a competition based on a merit system provides a fairer playing field to all rather than a legacy system that works on just money, status and connections.

Not everybody can send their children to an expensive international school, so to me, an affordable, quality public school like this is what people need for their children. This is because apart from maintaining academic excellence, a school should also be a safe space for children’s holistic development and emotional well-being.

For now, though, I hope to see Triam Udom constantly develop its standards and continue inspiring many schools in the country to improve and offer more choices and opportunities to Thai children. I hope it will not be too long before students start truly enjoying learning, and finally have the freedom to choose the way they do it.