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Are international schools worth the high price tag?

Update: July, 25/2012 - 09:54

by Thu Huong Le


As any marketer will tell you, in Viet Nam, foreign brands and goods are viewed as being better than local products. Education is no exception. For many years now, parents often associate schools carrying the word "international" or the name of Singapore, Australia, the United States or other English speaking nations in their titles, as a sure draw card. But this is not always the case.

In May, Maple Bear Kindergarten, a Canadian business, was caught serving stale and low-quality meals to children whose parents pay about VND12 million (US$570) per month in a country where the minimum wage was raised to a paltry VND1.05 million ($50) not long ago. The parents rallied in protest at the slow action taken to correct the situation, but few removed their children.

There have also been many reports of parents being pressured by international schools to pay fees in US dollars, or the equivalent amount in local currency at a higher exchange rate. Some have no idea what their children are studying due to the language barrier or whether the teachers are actually qualified.

Foreign-style education and the desire to teach children English at an early age are so valued that international schools have become "gold mines". "When I taught at one school the teacher's book gave recommended amount of material to cover for classes and that school halved the amount so the students would take twice as long to complete the book," one foreign teacher revealed.

International schools began to appear in the late 1990s to serve the children of expatriate business people, diplomatic families and the few wealthy Vietnamese parents who wanted to prepare their children for overseas college education.

At the time, there were only a few in the major cities. They offered programmes that were accredited abroad, such as the International Baccalaureate or the International General Certificate of Secondary Education.

In many cases, only Vietnamese who were born abroad or whose parents studied or worked overseas were allowed to enter these schools. Over the years, hundreds of other so-called international schools began to mushroom.

They promoted themselves as having teachers, curricula and facilities of international standards, luring naive Vietnamese parents who had the cash to spare. Dr. Sean McGough, former CEO of an international academy in Ha Noi, said the failure levels at Vietnamese public-schools prompted the move.

"The schools are driven by profit-oriented boards of directors, school leaders, managers and teachers who have to please the pupils otherwise parents will withdraw them from the school," he said. "However, education should be a long-term investment leading to the future development of the country, not a business determined by immediate profits and short-term commercial decision making."

Dennis Berg, a long-time education consultant in Viet Nam, said people were paying good money under the illusion that "international" automatically meant something. He said the Ministry of Education and Training should establish baseline criteria for these schools, such as the student-faculty ratio, international standard curriculum, appropriate credentials for teachers and foreign language training, adding that facilities should equal to or be better than regular public schools. "Someone should be responsible for monitoring their compliance with the quality they are selling to customers, perhaps such schools should have a licence fee, a portion of which could be used to offset the cost of monitoring their performance," Berg said.

Maynard Yutzy, director of the QSI International School in Ha Noi, said there was a simple way of assessing what schools are truly international. "And theyr'e not international anymore if the primary focus is serving the locals," he said. While the school has to prepare a monthly report for the Department of Education, it's just paper work and offers no real checks on what is on offer.

The QSI head said his school relied on an international accreditation system to monitor quality. Pham Van Dai, deputy head of the Ha Noi's Department of Education and Training said the ministry of education would soon issue criteria for assessing international schools and a list of those genuinely registered.

Parents such as Do Thu Hien, whose two children go to a French speaking international school, said her they were happier there than at the previous Singapore international school. Both were now good at English and French.

Hien said she was not bothered by tuition fees of about $6000 a year for each child. But many other parents say they spend much of their savings on their children's education at international schools, often enough to buy a small house. — VNS

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