Students study English at an elementary school in Ho Chi Minh City / PHOTO: DAO NGOC THACH
The Ministry of Education and Training's recent plan to remove English as a compulsory subject for the high school graduation examination has raised questions about Vietnam's much vaunted efforts to improve the foreign language competency of local students.
Under the plan announced last week, students can sit for an English test to try and get an extra two marks in their graduation exams. While the maximum they can get from the optional exam is two marks, they can get one bonus mark even if they score just 50 percent in the English exam.
The plan has bewildered many people.
Over many years now, Vietnam has launched many costly projects to enhance the quality of English teaching and studying. But, now it seems to be backing out by attempting to make English an optional instead of a compulsory subject.
One cannot help but wonder if the education ministry is silently admitting failure with such plan.
In fact, a major VND9 trillion (US$422.8 million) national project to improve the teaching and studying of English between 2008 and 2020 has been questioned continuously, even though it has crossed the half-way mark.
One of the main problems is that the ministry has given almost nothing to local governments except money and the project's outline and objectives. No detailed guidelines were given, so each locality ended up with their own way of achieving the goals.
For instance, the official newspaper of a Central Highlands province reported that the locality had introduced English as a compulsory subject in K-12 education starting at the third grade, in the 2011-2012 school year. It also launched a pilot to teach mathematics and computer skills in English at a top high school.
Meanwhile, in a Mekong Delta province, about 15 percent of local third graders started being taught English from last year. The province too planned to teach mathematics and other sciences in English at one of its top high schools in 2015.
How can a delta province with better access to education and equipment be content with the goal of teaching English for just 15 percent of its third grade pupils, while a mountainous province with poor infrastructure is confident about applying the plan to all of its students?
Despite the differences in their plans, the provinces share one goal that is very small, given the project's ambitions: twelfth graders of just two top high schools will be able to graduate with English competence in mathematics, basic sciences and computer science.
Now that the education ministry plans to remove English as a compulsory subject, will schools that lack capable teachers and equipment make use of it to abandon such an important subject?
Vietnam, after trying hard for many years, could wind up having just a few students from top schools able to communicate in the language that is considered a must in the current context of globalization and increased international integration.
Moreover, while the ministry and schools are struggling to meet the national project's objectives, they have failed to recruit more students for English teaching at pedagogy universities, improve the quality of training at such schools, and issue policies that offer allowances sufficient to have teachers stick with their teaching job instead of switching to other jobs with better remuneration.
The project never works, if we put the cart before the horse by trying to improve students' skills while failing to make teachers' competence better.
It is really difficult to understand why the ministry appears to be giving up on one of its main objectives, which is not one that is too lofty, but one that is a basic necessity for Vietnam's greater integration into the region and the world.
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