|Testing times: Students at Ngoc Hien Secondary School and High School in Ca Mau Province's Ngoc Hien District take a test. — VNS Photo Gia Loc
The Mekong Delta has seen a slow but steady rise in school attendance over the last 40 years, thanks to new roads, schools and modern teaching methods. But it needs to do more to prepare for a future in which fishing and farming jobs become less prominent. Gia Loc reports.
As a primary school student in 1975, Ly Hung had to walk five kilometres - often on muddy paths and over slender bamboo "monkey" bridges - to reach his school in An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta.
"It was slippery and dangerous," he said.
Although the war had ended and the country had been reunified, many children in the Delta region could not attend school. Family hardships, poor roads and a shortage of schools had left a crumbling infrastructure.
But Hung, who is now deputy head of the educational division of An Giang's Tri Ton District, was luckier than most. He eventually received a university degree and returned home to work.
Hung's colleague, Kim Sen, a specialist in the division's primary education department, was also a student during the time.
"Each district had only one primary school. Fortunately, I could walk to school. But other kids couldn't because they lived in communes far away," he said. "Their parents were busy earning a living, so they had no time to take them to school."
In an area dense with rivers and canals, it was often risky to travel to school as there were few good roads. Many parents were reluctant to let their children ride in boats, so the kids often skipped school or dropped out.
Even in recent years, in the southernmost province of Ca Mau, residents in Ngoc Hien Island District have had to use boats as the island had no roads before 2013.
"It was dangerous for students to use boats in the rainy season. We were worried when they went to school," Tran Van Ut, deputy head of the island district's educational division, said.
Two years ago the district built a road connecting the island's Cua Lon ferry station to the district centre.
Thanks to the road, between 90 and 99 per cent of the schoolchildren now attend primary school, a far higher rate compared to 2000, Ut said.
Before the road was built, the enrolment rate in kindergarten through high school was very low.
Cao Minh Hong, deputy head of the province's Department of Education and Training, said he hoped that future development of road networks in the district and the province as a whole would improve school access.
Since the late 1970s, Ca Mau Province's network of schools has expanded to communes, wards and towns, while the enrolment rate at all schools has risen each year.
Similarly, in An Giang, the number of kindergartens and schools has increased fourfold compared to the 1985-86 academic year, said Ly Thanh Tu, deputy head of the province's Department of Education and Training.
The province today has 198 kindergartens and nurseries, 346 primary schools, 156 secondary schools, 51 high schools and 12 training centres and community learning centres in communes and wards.
School-age children, young adults and dropouts now have a better chance to start or re-enter school.
Still, the number of schools that meet national standards set by the Ministry of Education and Training remains low, with only 74 schools reaching the target.
The province aims for all schools to meet national standards by 2025.
After 1975, Tu said there was widespread illiteracy, with more than 150,000 school-age children not attending school in the province.
"Education was one of the province's main political tasks after the war," he said.
At the time, the province focused on eradicating illiteracy, and by 1978 the programme was recognised as successful by the ministry.
During the period, the government increased investments in roads, bridges and schools, especially in rural and mountainous areas.
A network of schools was also built over the years, which helped reduce the travel distance from home to school, Hung, the deputy head of Tri Ton District's educational division, said.
In the current 2014-15 academic year, the number of children aged 3-5 attending kindergarten in An Giang rose 2.7 times compared to the 1985-86 academic year.
|Child's play: Students at Chau Van Liem Primary School in An Giang Province play basketball while waiting for their parents to pick them up. — VNS Photo Gia Loc
Nearly 90 per cent of the province's school-age children are now enrolled in primary school. And since 1985-86, the number of secondary-school students in the province has doubled, and high school enrollment has increased fourfold.
An Giang has been able to attract more qualified teachers by offering better housing and generous allowances to them.
Le Viet Dung, deputy rector of Can Tho University, said projects such as the national New Rural Development Programme had also had a positive influence on education in the Mekong Delta region.
The goal of the national rural programme is to improve living standards by developing electrical-power networks, roads, schools, medical clinics and housing.
Vo Trong Huu, head of the Steering Committee for the Southwestern Region's cultural and social division, said residents in the Mekong Delta were aware that education was the key to a better future, and higher incomes, particularly for students who want to shift from farming to other occupations.
Apart from an increase in the number of schools, a network of universities, colleges and vocational training centres has also been created in the region.
However, Nguyen Van Sanh, head of the Mekong Delta Development Research Institute, said the number of university graduates remained low.
And more than 32 per cent of people aged 5 and above in the Delta region, which includes 12 provinces and Can Tho City, have not completed primary school, according to a General Statistics Office report released last year.
While the dropout rate has fallen in the region, it is still higher than in other areas in the country.
There are 1.4 million farming households in the delta; many of them have low incomes and cannot afford to send their children to school, Sanh said.
For a family with many children, the eldest one often drops out of school and is chosen to work while the siblings continue their education.
"The dropout rate affects the quality of human resources in the region," Sanh said.
In An Giang, the average dropout rate in the 2014-15 academic year was 0.3 per cent in primary school, 1.48 per cent in secondary schools, and 1.65 per cent in high schools.
Tu said the main reasons for dropping out were family financial difficulties and students' poor school results.
The education sector has worked with local authorities and organisations to create many assistance programmes for students from poor families who are at risk of dropping out, he said.
For students with poor school results, teachers have opened extra classes.
Tran Van Doi, principal at Luong An Tra Primary School in Tri Ton's Luong An Tra Commune, said the school had opened a branch to serve local children, located about nine kilometres from their homes.
Of the 71 children, 32 are on the official list of the commune's poor families. The remaining, who also have financial problems, live in other provinces and cities.
The branch teachers take an interest in the community, visiting houses to present notebooks, clothes and other items, and encouraging students to stay in school.
Entertainment programmes during the country's holidays are organised for the students, and textbook costs for many poor families are subsidised.
A new international learning model, the Viet Nam Escuela Nueva (VNEN), which is being used at the school, and in all of Viet Nam's 63 provinces, has helped reduce the drop-out rate.
Begun in 2012, the US$84 million education project is funded by the World Bank and implemented by the Ministry of Education and Training.
The learning model emphasises independent learning and creates opportunities for students to conduct their own study activities, with the teachers acting as facilitators. Students teach and assess each other in teams, and are encouraged to express their opinions.
While many students are fortunate to take part in new learning environments, Huynh Thi Bich Van, from the neighbouring district of Tinh Bien, a high school graduate who works for a commune People's Committee, could only rely on the kindness of one teacher.
Van's father and stepmother, she said, wanted her to leave school and move to Binh Duong Province to find a job. But she refused.
A sympathetic teacher convinced the school to exempt her tuition fees, and Van was given notebooks, secondhand clothes and other items.
Many parents have also asked their children aged 14 or above to work in Binh Duong or Dong Nai Province, where there are many factory jobs.
Aware of the situation, Binh Duong's educational department has opened classes in the evening and built facilities for young workers to continue their studies.
In Ca Mau, where the dropout rate is still relatively high, teachers try to take an active role in their students' lives and in the community as a way of preventing students from leaving school.
They sometimes act as godparents to one or two disadvantaged children and follow their educational progress.
Sanh of the Research Institute said all of these activities were helping families in the Delta, but it was also important to raise farmers' incomes to improve education access for their children.
"Strengthening co-operation between provinces in the region to restructure agriculture and make farming more profitable is the best way to raise their incomes. This will, in turn, help lower the dropout rate at schools," he said. — VNS