More than 200,000 students quit school every year, threatening dire consequences for Vietnam's human-resource base
Two shoeshine boys in downtown Ho Chi Minh City
Nguyen Thanh San had to quit secondary school and move to Ho Chi Minh City two years ago to wash dishes at his aunt's eatery to earn money and support his family in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh.
The 15-year-old son of a farmer is planning to return to his hometown to work as a construction apprentice, a harder but better paying job.
"No one forced me to quit school; it was my own decision," he says. But when asked if his parents encouraged him to continue studying, he says they do not care much about the issue.
San is among hundreds of thousands of students dropping out of school every year in Vietnam, a problem that is repeatedly brought up at the beginning of each academic year.
To reverse this trend, experts are calling for improving education and awareness of it among parents.
In September the media reported that large numbers of students in central provinces did not return to school after the summer vacation.
One high school, Au Co in Dong Giang District, Quang Nam Province, sent teachers to students' houses and found that many of them had gotten married or given birth, the Vietnam Study Encouragement Association reported on its website.
Among the pregnant students was Rapat Thi Nhenh of class 12C1. Her classmate Avo Thi Hon said Nhenh had become pregnant during the previous academic year but did not tell her teachers.
Nhenh's mother said: "The school is far away [from her home] and she had to rent accommodation nearby. She studied well and I didn't expect that to happen. She told me she was pregnant when we went into the forest once to pick bamboo shoots during the summer vacation."
Ating Thi Tuoi, principal of Quang Trung High School also in Dong Giang, said many ethnic Cotu people have low awareness of the importance of education and married early.
A survey by Nam Giang High School in Nam Giang District found that half of the 84 students who quit school this year attending vocational schools, while eight others had married and the rest stayed at home to help their family with farming.
"How do children fare in the new millennium?" A study by a research team from the University of Oxford in Britain found that "a significant proportion of children do not continue schooling after completing junior secondary school in rural areas.
"For children in mountainous areas, schools, especially higher secondary schools, are far from home and therefore a decision to go to school may involve economic considerations as well as the child's test scores and performance in school."
However, the survey found that in the deltas and urban areas, nearly everyone who passes higher secondary school entrance exams continues with schooling.
The enrolment rate for ethnic minority children born in 1994 and 1995 aged 16 and 17 now is around 50 percent while for the others it is 80 percent.
But an even lower rate of 46 percent was observed among children whose caregivers had no education.
The higher the caregivers' level of education, the more likely their children were in school, it found.
"It is also likely that low levels of maternal education and low levels of wealth are closely associated, so maternal education also acts as a proxy for other disadvantages," it said.
The researchers studied 2,939 children and their families.
Le Thuc Duc of the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences, who headed the team, said the rate of students dropping out of school was a challenge for Vietnam in terms of human resource competition with other countries in the region.
"Based on the 2009 census we found that 1.2 million students had quit school in Vietnam," he said.
Asked about this, Bui Hong Quang of the Ministry of Education and Training told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that it was difficult to identify the exact number.
But he admitted that 212,800 out of a total number of 14,849,288 students had dropped out during the last school year, and the figure for this year was slightly higher.
Last month the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam launched the Human Development Report and urged Vietnam to improve education services since its human development index (HDI) is below average.
The report places Vietnam in the medium human development category, ranking it 128th out of 187 countries surveyed.
The HDI is based on three factors a long and healthy life, access to education and knowledge, and a decent standard of living.
Vietnam's HDI rose 11.8 percent between 1999 and 2008, but income growth contributed more than half of this while education only contributed 12.6 percent.
The Oxford study quoted the Deputy Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Minh Hien as saying that the high rate of school dropouts was due to unfavorable socio-economic conditions such as poverty, long distance to schools and poor transportation, and even hunger and lack of good clothes.
It also blamed the "achievement syndrome" or the desire among schools, teachers, and government agencies to look good by ensuring students score good grades even if they are undeserving.
In one recent case a Thanh Nien correspondent found that a seventh grader in Quy Nhon Town could hardly write his own name.
"I have never known how to spell or read since I was in first grade. I copied from my friends in exams."
Nguyen Thi Cam Nhung, the principal of his school, admitted that Nhat could not read or write words.
But only once in fourth grade has he failed to get promotion to the next higher grade.
Quy Nhon education officials are investigating.