Children attend an English class under a trial program by the Institute of Science and Education at a Hanoi kindergarten. Photo by Minh Anh
Though they are poorly equipped, many pre-schools in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City advertise themselves as "international" because they teach English.
Even though they aren't allowed to offer the subject, poor regulation does not stop them.
Vietnam's education ministry only allows English teaching at primary schools, but classes have already been offered at a wide variety of nursery schools and kindergartens.
Smart Kids English center in Hanoi has placed its teachers at a number of public and private nurseries.
The extra English classes range between VND80,000 and 450,000 (US$3.80-21.35) a month, and do not follow a standard programs as schools work with a range of different language centers.
Luu Thi Tuong Van, an education official in Hanoi's Ba Dinh District, said that while English teaching in primary schools is monitored by education authorities each step of the way, the kindergarten classes "are left afloat."
The schools look for their own partners and do not have to report to anyone, Van said, adding that her office employs only one expert in English education who is already busy checking programs at primary and secondary schools.
But she said the district government has plans to examine the quality of English programs at local kindergartens, as there have been reports that the centers use backpack tourists as teachers.
She said she doubted kindergartens are in the game for its educational benefits.
"I don't know what motivation the schools have, but their principals are so devoted to bringing in the English programs, it's just like they are working for the centers."
Hoang Thanh Huong, head of the kindergarten desk at Hanoi education department, said her office does not recommend teaching English to children at nursery school ages.
Yet she said 30 select kindergartens in the capital city have since last year experimented with an English program under a study by the Institute of Science and Education.
"The program is to make children familiar with English rather than teach English," Huong said.
Joining or not joining the program, which costs VND350,000 450,000 a month for up to six hours of activities, is up to the parents, she added.
But several parents said they had run out of choices since the English program falls into the high-quality program they signed their children up for.
Many schools in HCMC now cooperate with POLY, a South Korean education company that opened its local office in 2010, as suggested by the city's education department.
A kindergarten principal in District 3 said the department had invited several large kindergartens in the city to attend a conference introducing POLY and its programs.
"There are other centers which charge less and have foreign teachers but I have to use POLY as the department has appointed my school [among several] to try its programs," said the official who did not want to be named.
POLY has different programs for children between ages 3 and 5, at VND320,000 a month plus an original payment of VND280,000 for textbooks. Extra reading classes cost VND160,000 a month and VND120,000 for textbooks.
Tran Kim Thanh, deputy director of Ho Chi Minh City education department, said the department wants to narrow things down to one program for better management.
Thanh said the department organized many conferences and introduced different English centers for the schools to choose from.
But principals at many kindergartens said they received phone calls from the department directly ordering them to use POLY programs.
They said POLY did not send native English teachers at first, and only promised to arrange a class meeting with native teachers a month when the schools threatened to end contracts.
The teachers said they are hardly able to monitor POLY's operation now that it works under the department's umbrella. It has been reluctant to provide teachers' profiles and certificates, unlike other centers that the kindergartens have worked with.
A marketing employee at the POLY office in the city's District 7 presented to an undercover Thanh Nien reporter a contract between the center and the city education department.
She said the department allowed the center to run trials in several major kindergartens in April 2011 and expanded the programs four months later.
Flawed at birth
Ian Kitching, chief teacher coordinator at the Ho Chi Minh City branch of British Council, a leading English language center in Vietnam which does not offer kindergarten classes, said teaching English in kindergartens, if not careful, can send the children along a wrong path that is difficult to reverse.
Kitching said inaccurate pronunciations by the teachers will be implanted in the children's minds and the errors are difficult to fix when they grow up.
He said teachers should be from a native English speaking country, and the most interesting and effective tools for teaching English to kindergarten children are music and movies.
Nguyen Thi Nghia, deputy minister of Education and Training, also said that teachers for kindergarten English must be accurate.
Nghia said the ministry is supervising the experimental program by the education institute and will consider putting it into wide use in a couple years if it is deemed helpful, adding that the decision will take a long time as the country now lacks even basic kindergarten teachers, let alone English ones.
She said any other English teaching programs being adopted at kindergartens across the country are illegal and should be stopped.
Nguyen Ba Minh, head of the kindergarten desk at the ministry, even objected to the ministry-endorsed program as saying it put children in regular contact with computers while children at young ages need real-world activities.
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