Open atmosphere attracts parents to private schools

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Nguyen Tuyet Mai always worried her daughter was too timid in school. The eight-year-old had trouble asking her teachers to explain things she didn't understand and Mai feared she was missing out on important aspects of her education.

The concerned mother had heard that some private schools create more supportive environments for students, so she moved her daughter out of the Hoang Mai District public school system in Hanoi and into a private institution.

"At public school, my daughter never dared to ask her teachers for help dealing with problems she faced in class, and she wouldn't ask them to explain more about lessons she didn't understand well enough," Mai said. "There were seldom friendly talks between teachers and students. Children at state-owned schools are taught to obey without question."

But after a year in the private school, things have changed.

"In the new school, teachers encourage students to ask questions and express their opinions," said Mai. "My daughter has become more self-confident and finds communicating with teachers and her friends much easier."

Like Mai, as classes opened across Vietnam on August 15 this year, more and more parents are now willing and able to pay higher fees for private schools, especially if it means their children receive more attention and individual care.

The closer relationships between teachers and students, and the more reasonable workload have also made private schools more attractive to an increasing number of parents.

Over 37,000 primary school students are now enrolled at private institutions in Vietnam, compared to around 27,000 ten years ago, according to the Ministry of Education and Training. Vietnam now has over seven million primary-school students and most private primary schools are in large cities.

The best private primary schools in Hanoi Doan Thi Diem, Nguyen Binh Khiem, Le Quy Don, Nguyen Sieu or Ly Thai To all require entrance exams, which many consider more competitive than those for college admissions.

An administrator at Nguyen Sieu said the number of applicants had tripled this year.

Similarly, Doan Thi Diem expects to admit only 400 of its 1,300 applicants. 

Hoang Thu Huong, whose 11-year-old son is studying at a famous private school in the city, said private schools provide a better learning environment.

"Each class [at private schools] has only 20-30 students, while 50-60 students are crammed into a class at a public school," she said. "Teachers take really good care of the students, so there is more chance for academic achievement."

Nguyen Cong Khanh, a psychologist at the Hanoi University of Education said private schools boast many benefits that public institutions simply don't have the means to provide. Among the most important were the fact that private schools could provide better perks for their teachers and offer more well-rounded curricula with various electives, he said.

"With this new model, private schools are becoming more attractive to many parents."

He said students from private schools might be able to integrate more easily with the increasingly globalized marketplace that requires an ever broadening range of skills.

"The difference lies in the way of teaching and learning," said the principal of a private school in Hanoi, who asked not to be named. She said her school creates a friendly environment among teachers and students, and encourages communications between them, supporting students self-esteem and self-initiative.

Most students at public schools are still burdened with an excessive workload. They work extra-long hours on school days and continue to have classes on weekends and holidays.

Mai said her daughter had much more time for art, music, sports and social skills now that she was in private school.

However, Vietnam still attaches much importance to exams. Students have to pass rigid standardized entrance exams if they want to get into the best high schools and universities. A private education may provide a more well-rounded learning experience, but it does not necessarily prepare one to pass the state tests.

Khanh, the psychologist, said parents had to keep that in mind, as well as take into consideration their children's individual strengths and weaknesses, when deciding whether to go private or public.

Nguyen Thanh Le, who has two children studying at Doan Thi Diem School, said not everything at private schools is perfect.

"I'm not satisfied with everything at the private school. However, I used to be exhausted by the heavy workload placed on my elder son in public school."

A lot of parents and students find that teachers at private schools are more animated and wholehearted than those at public ones.

Ho Anh Thu's 12-year-old son has studied at a well-known private school for a year. "My son says his teachers care very much about students," she said. "It seems a lot to pay US$300 a month in school fees, but I think it is worth it for what students receive in the end."

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