Flood of HCMC English programs in doubt

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Students at a class taught by a foreign teacher under a University of Cambridge International Examinations program at Le Ngoc Han School, District 1, HCMC

Ho Chi Minh City schools are offering kids overwhelming advanced English classes that have not been evaluated by Vietnam's educational authorities, Tuoi Tre reports.

According to recent investigations by Tuoi Tre, most elementary schools in central Ho Chi Minh City offer students between two and four English courses.

All students have to take the Ministry of Education's regular English program, but many chose to take on extra classes, often at the behest of their parents.

Students at Ky Dong Primary School in District 3, for instance, have four choices outside of the government's main program: an new intensive English program provided by the city's education department; a program that the school conducts in collaboration with a foreign language center; a new pilot program that is part of the education ministry's new foreign language project through 2020; and the Cambridge International Examinations program, which provides English instruction and mathematics and science classes also in English.

Certain schools have been selected to offer the ministry's pilot program, which is more time intensive and uses other textbooks than the regular government curriculum.

The ministry's pilot program does not charge tuition, but students can pay VND70,000 (US$3.31) per month to get a foreign teacher. The Cambridge program charges $150 per month and the tuition must be paid every three months.

The other programs charge between VND120,000 and 130,000 ($5.68-6.15) a month, according to the newspaper.

This trend has been attributed to the HCMC Education Department's plan that encourages schools to offer different kinds of English training programs. The plan aims to boost students' foreign language skills.

Nguyen Hoai Chuong, vice director of the HCMC education department, was quoted by Tuoi Tre as telling a recent meeting that all the elementary schools need to offer at least one extra English teaching program so students can approach the language early.

"Those schools which have resources should apply many programs at the same time," he said.

Secondary and high schools are also offering the Cambridge courses and similar courses, as well as the intensive classes designed by the education department. 

Under the education department's plan, ten local high schools started teaching tenth-graders subjects in the natural sciences in English this year.

Meanwhile, many schools have launched programs that target certain skills like Luong The Vinh High School, where English programs are designed with a focus on speaking and listening skills as opposed to reading and writing.

In the dark

Most of these choices have yet to be properly evaluated by educational authorities, Tuoi Tre reported.

Nearly 2,000 students are now in classes under the Cambridge programs, but Vietnamese educational bodies will not evaluate the courses until 2015, Chuong was quoted as saying.

Speaking to the newspaper, the principal of a high school that is teaching tenth-grade students mathematics in English as per the education department's plan for 2012 said the plan did not stipulate which programs the school should use and thus different institutions were using different programs of varying intensity and quality.

The principle said there also wasn't a regulatory framework for such programs yet, so no authorities are evaluating the quality of the programs.

Most parents, meanwhile, don't have any information about the extra programs and don't know their objectives nor the differences from program to program.

Speaking to Tuoi Tre, some said they enrolled their kids in the extra English programs because they assumed they offered better teaching and other benefits.

Nghia, the mother of a second grader in Tan Binh District, said she and her husband enrolled the child in the education department's intensive English program because students who took the program were eligible for day boarding services such as lunch and supervision during the long afternoon break. Otherwise parents have to pick their students up from school, feed them, and provide supervision in the late mornings and early afternoons.

She added that despite the exta program, after school, her child studied English at a foreign language center two days a week.

A parent whose child is studying at Le Ngoc Han School in District 1 said the classes that did not apply the Cambridge program had old furniture and fans, while her child was "used to living with air conditioners."

"The most important thing is that a normal class has too many students more than 40 which makes good quality teaching very difficult. A Cambridge class has just 28 students, plus high-end furniture, equipment and devices," she said. 

The differences, according to Tuoi Tre, were because EMG Education, which administers the Cambridge programs in Vietnam, asks local schools to meet their requirements regarding infrastructure and number of students before signing agreements.

Under pressure

According to Tuoi Tre reports, many parents and teachers are complaining that students are overloaded by the extra classes, especially the Cambridge programs.

It quoted a mother whose child is studying at Nguyen Binh Khiem Elementary School in District 1 as saying that her kid complains about exhaustion after school every day. She said her child's foreign language classes just keep getting harder and harder.

Several parents whose children are studying at Le Ngoc Han School said they had to pay tutors to teach the kids English at home in order to keep up with the more difficult language classes.

"Scientific subjects in the Cambridge program are sometimes too difficult to understand for Vietnamese students," one of the parents said.

On the other hand, a second-grade teacher told the newspaper that many students who attended the Cambridge program in first grade were very good at English, but their performance in Mathematics and Vietnamese was poor when they reached second and third grades.

An unnamed educational official also told Tuoi Tre that the Cambridge program was specific for native English speaking students.

"For foreign students, English is their official language, or even native one, while for Vietnamese students, English is their second language, but the knowledge of the subjects is the same. So it [the Cambridge program] is of course harder for Vietnamese students."

The official also said that many students could not keep up with the intensive English program provided by the education department.

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