A foreigner trains primary school teachers in Ho Chi Minh City on August 29. A plan to hire 100 Filipinos to teach English at public primary and secondary schools in the city has attracted controversy.
Seven-year-old Le Dang Quoc An has not had a day off since the beginning of the school year.
The second-grader at Le Dinh Chinh School in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5 has to take extra classes on weekends at a popular English center.
"He did not learn much English at school. That's why I registered him at the center," said his mother Dang Thi Thanh Nga, adding that her son really likes studying at the center with an Australian teacher who is very active and friendly.
But many primary and secondary students in the city will now have foreign teachers in their public school classrooms due to a controversial trial plan to employ 100 Filipino teachers to teach English at local HCMC schools.
Advocates say the plan could bring better English education and motivation for local teachers to improve themselves. But others said education authorities should hire foreign teachers only from countries where English is the mother tongue, or improve local staff instead.
Le Hong Son, director of the HCMC Department of Education and Training, said parents will have to pay for their children to study with Filipino teachers.
According to the plan, each Filipino teacher will be paid VND40 million (US$1,920) per month to teach 35 periods per week, including 20 inside the class and the rest in outdoor activities.
The department said each student will pay about VND120,000 per month and another VND500,000-VND1 million per year for education equipment and the English class with Filipino teachers would not be compulsory.
Vietnam's per capita income in 2011 was about $1,300.
Experts in the field are divided over the feasibility of the plan.
Nguyen Thi Kieu Thu, dean of the English Linguistics and Literature Faculty at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper she had interviewed some Filipino teachers and not all of them could speak good English.
"We have to screen them carefully to employ competent people," she said.
But Vu Thi Phuong Anh, deputy director of the Education Quality Training and Support Center at the Association of Non-Public Colleges and Universities, was confident with the new plan.
"The Filipinos are the best English speakers in South East Asia. I support the choice of Filipino teachers because they can ensure quality education for a reasonable price," she said.
But critics of the plan were even more forthright by saying HCMC should hire only native English speakers or improve local teachers instead.
The principal of a primary school in HCMC, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she was concerned by the plan because English is not the mother tongue of Filipinos.
She said her school has contracted with English teachers from the UK, US and Australia.
The principal of an international school in the city agreed: "The best way to learn a foreign language is to study with a native speaker. It is even more important for primary students. I am afraid that they will speak English like a Filipino rather than native English speakers."
The principal of another primary school in HCMC said she has hired foreign English teachers based on her own criteria.
"They must have blond hair, white skin and blue eyes. They must respect Vietnamese teachers and students as well," she said.
Meanwhile, experts argued that there should be more efforts to improve the skills of local English teachers.
Cao Huy Thao, principal of the Vietnam Australia High School, said education authorities should look into why Vietnamese teachers' English is not as good as their Filipino colleagues'.
"There are many Vietnamese with good English but they don't want to be a teacher due to the low salary," he said, adding that many confident English teachers have changed professions.
A local English teacher in District 1, name withheld, said many local teachers feel hurt by the plan.
"Many Vietnamese people studied abroad and their English is as good as [that of] native speakers. Why don't we recruit these people? If we offer a payment of just $1,000 a month [half of what is to be paid to the Filipinos] we can hire many good teachers," he said.
Currently, the monthly pay for a new local teacher is less than VND2 million ($96).
The District 1 teacher also called for wider recruitment that includes native English speakers who live and work in the city.
But Son, the city's education leader, said the plan would be implemented only on a trial basis.
"It will be a motivation for local teachers to improve themselves and also offer a chance for them to meet foreign colleagues [to practice English]," he said.
Son said his agency's research had found that higher salaries for teachers from the US, UK and Australia were too expensive.
"Moreover, HCMC had agreed to cooperate with the Philippines in several fields, including education," he said.
Under the nationwide project to improve students' English skills, officials have adopted the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to measure language competency and teachers will need to achieve level B2 in English with high school graduates expected to reach B1, a level below.
However, a survey in June found the English skills of most teachers in Vietnam were far behind such standards.
Nguyen Ngoc Hung, the project's executive manager said, however, no teachers would be sacked if they are not qualified because "we already know most of them are not qualified."
According to reports by local media, of the 700 teachers of Ben Tre Province who had been tested, only 61 got the required score.
The education ministry said that in one province, which could not be identified, the pass rate was as low as one in 700.
Hung said 97 percent of high school teachers, and 93 percent of elementary and secondary school teachers failed to achieve B2 in the recent English tests and 17 percent of elementary school teachers tested only achieved a beginner's level.
He blamed the problem on the fact that English teachers at some universities and colleges were employed on the basis of their certificates, not through tests which verified their English skills.
Meanwhile, many teachers said they do not have the opportunity to practice their speaking and listening skills since academic programs focus on vocabulary and grammar only.
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