While preparing for public examinations like their counterparts around the world, students at one school in Thailand also study core life values, such as truth, respect and honesty, as part of the curriculum. Roong Aroon School, in Bangkok, is a school with a difference. Based on Buddhist principles, it was set up by a leading Thai academic, Prapapat Niyom, in 1997, and built in an idyllic setting beside a lake surrounded by trees and wildlife.
The school applies a holistic approach to teaching. It has 1,150 students, ranging from kindergarten to secondary level, and the curriculum values 'learning by doing'. Children are taught important life skills by local farmers, hill-tribe villagers, environmental management workers and gardeners. So instead of sitting in class with a textbook to learn about food, students go to the fields to grow rice.
'We believe education is not about getting higher marks in examinations or competing with others,' says Prempreeti Harntanong, a social science teacher at the school for the past 11 years. 'We want our students to have a public and civic mind - and have life skills to cope with challenges.'
Some parents might doubt that a school devoting so much time to non-exam subjects can prepare its students for higher education. But 90 per cent of children that have left Roong Aroon have gone on to study at university.
There are about 50 of these alternative schools in Thailand today - 20 of them in Bangkok. And the number is growing.
'More people in our society are looking for better education - one that can guide their children to improve on personal quality and [learn] to share, love and respect,' Harntanong says.
A group of young Hongkongers visited the school and other socially innovative organisations in Thailand this year. The summer trip was run by Make a Difference, a local organisation that aims to inspire young people.
'I envy the school's students,' says Cheng Wing-chun, a secondary school programme co-ordinator. 'Teachers guide their students through projects and research. They enjoy studying and can understand what they learn through participation.'
Yeung Siu-chak, a secondary school teacher, was impressed that students are taught to live a 'green' life. 'At a recycling centre, I saw everyone - from a kindergarten child to a teacher - carefully separating waste - metal, paper and plastic bottles - into different bins. Each year the Grade 12 students must take care of the school's sewage treatment facility. Students learn the true meaning of 'green living' by practising it in real life. It's much better than learning from textbooks.'
Jiang Yihong, a student at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says: 'The school visit inspired me. Its success is the result of an open-minded government and people's proactive thinking. It has motivated me to develop my own NGO project. I want to train young people to have all-round skills.'
Sin Yan-ying and Chan Wai-ming, who are studying at the University of Hong Kong, praised the school. Sin says: 'This alternative education has made me question myself. Growing up in a rigid, exam-oriented education system, I learned to focus on my grades. Many Hong Kong students have no goals. But students at the school have a clear vision. It makes me think studying shouldn't be only about grades, but also about opening your mind and realising your potential.'
Chan says: 'After the visit, I thought: 'What do Hong Kong students get out of our competitive education system that focuses on exams, and from a society that has making money as the priority?' We need to start answering such questions.'