by Trung Hieu-Kieu Oanh
Parents spending a lot of money on their children to learn English are starting to wonder if they are getting what they paid for.
Le Thanh Hoai, who lives in Ha Noi's Kim Ma Street, has sent her son to an international school in the urban complex of Ciputra since he entered 1st grade.
"Having spent hundreds of millions of dong on tuition, we hope the school's modern teaching methods will help my son become a creative student who excels at all subjects, especially English, so we can send him to study abroad in the future," she says.
But after two years, Hoai worries that her son lags behind other children his age who study in Vietnamese schools.
"His English essays are silly compared to those of other children. I was also shocked that he could hardly solve math problems assigned to 4th graders in public school."
Hoai plans to hire a tutor to improve her son's knowledge.
A mother of a 1st grade pupil at the non-public Doan Thi Diem Primary School says: "I just bought four English books – two textbooks and two exercise books. They are as thick as two Vietnamese books for 1st grade. Of course they are Western books, and the price of VND3 million (US$148) for four books with a CD was really shocking. But we had to buy them."
Adding to the confusion, each school uses a different curriculum and charges different tuition fees.
Students at Ngoc Lam Primary School study textbooks called Magic Time. Their parents have to pay tuition of VND6 million ($290) a year, with an additional VND200,000 per term for textbooks.
Binh Minh Primary School uses the Let's Go textbooks and has set tuition at VND100,000 a month. Students have three English lessons per week.
Hoang Dieu Primary School in Ba Dinh District has collaborated with a foreign language centre to teach English to students from 1st grade on. The school calls the classes that teach English "high quality classes", so parents have to pay more than $300 each school year, in addition to other fees.
So far about 300 primary schools in Ha Noi teach English as a voluntary subject. But although English in schools is considered "optional", parents can hardly refuse to let their children join these classes.
Currently, most primary schools in Ha Noi co-ordinate with foreign language centres to teach English.
As English lessons provide a large segment of schools' revenue, they often persuade parents to sign their children up for these classes, which they call "selective classes" or "high quality international classes". These classes provide air conditioning and better teachers to justify the higher tuition rates.
A mother whose child just entered 1st grade in Thuong Thanh Primary School in Long Bien District says when she registered her child at the school, its enrolment board advised her that if she signed him up to study English, he would be entered into a "selective class". If not, he would enter a normal class.
"We have to pay VND100,000 for each lesson, but the class has more than 50 pupils, so learning English there is not effective," says another parent. "If we instead sent our children to study at outside foreign language centres, where each class has about 10 learners, they would get a better quality education."
Parents also say that while the schools advertise that they employ "English native teachers", they don't know if these teachers are actually certified to teach or if they are just Western backpackers in search of quick cash.
In 2010, the HCM City Department of Education and Training added the Cambridge curriculum to the various options available in elementary schools.
Ky Dong Primary School in the southern metropolis' District 3 now offers four English curricula for 1st grade students: an optional programme, enhancement programme, Cambridge, and DynEd.
However, parents don't know which programme to choose. "I planned to let my son study the optional English curriculum but it seems too easy. If we choose the Cambridge I am afraid that my family can hardly afford the tuition of $150 per month. If we choose the enhancement English programme, I am afraid that my son will fall behind his classmates who learn Cambridge," says Nguyen Minh Nguyet, a parent.
Duoc Song Primary School in District 1 organises 18 intensive English classes for students from 1st to 5th grade. Students learn Family and Friends (American English) of Oxford Publisher with eight lessons per week. Other students can register to study the optional English curriculum, with two lessons per week.
It's true that offering different programmes in English at the same level gives parents an array of options. However, many parents suspect the quality of teaching in all of them is not very high.
Nguyen Thi Hien, rector of the Doan Thi Diem Primary School, says students in her school who participate in the international programme must pay higher tuition than students in the normal programme. "As it is an international programme, school fees have to follow international regulations," she says.
She adds that the school's regular English curricula has remained constant for many years. "Textbooks for students from 1st to 5th grade are the Kid's Box curriculum published by Cambridge University Press.
"Our school has offered the international English language programme for four years," she says. "This programme is implemented under the guidance of the Ha Noi Department of Education and Training. All the teachers and curricula are taken care of by Cambridge's Education Group, which holds the rights to administer this programme. Therefore, the international primary school English textbooks' cost of VND3 million ($148) for four copies, which many parents complain about, is justified," she says.
"It's up to parents whether they want their children to participate in our school's international primary curriculum, and we also make public all the fees so parents can prepare in advance. If they can't afford the fees, they can enroll their children in the regular programme or move them to another school," she says.
Hien says that for parents whose children study in private schools with different options, this situation is unavoidable. "That's why we have to ask for parental consent for each fee, and each time we collect fees we require a parent's signature."
An administrator in the Ha Noi Department of Education and Training who chose to remain anonymous says that because English is an optional subject, teaching and tuition are up to the school's discretion.
"We only control the content of the compulsory English programme for higher classes," he says.
Some parents complain that moving their children to other classes or schools is just "a reluctant solution". Perhaps that's why many parents signed the voluntary terms, even though they were not happy with them. — VNS