Vietnam children pay heavy price for failed education policy

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Ho Chi Minh City's privatization policy has shortchanged preschool children who suffer violence meted out by heartless caretakers


Kindergarteners in Ho Chi Minh City. Experts and industry insiders say the city's privatization policy has turned preschooling into a risky venture for parents and children. Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

One month after a babysitter was arrested for fatally abusing her ward, two others have been detained after a video clip showing them ill-treating children entrusted to their care went viral online.

Over the past several years, local media have reported many cases of children at private nurseries and kindergartens being violently dealt with by their caretakers.

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These showcase a failure of education reforms initiated by city authorities, experts say.

Police in Ho Chi Minh City's Thu Duc District on December 17 arrested two babysitters working for an unlicensed private nursery for allegedly maltreating children.

Police said Le Thi Dong Phuong, 31, and Nguyen Le Thien Ly, 19, have confessed to abusing the children and are likely to face criminal charges.

Earlier, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper filmed the abuse and posted the video online. It shows the two women viciously slapping and hitting, grabbing and shaking, and pinching noses of several children to force them to eat and drink, and to make the little ones eat faster.

Ly even lifts up a baby girl and threatens to dunk her into a large water drum despite her pitiful cries, for eating too slowly.

Phuong used to work for a public kindergarten in the city for seven years before opening the nursery last October. Even as her application for a license was being considered, she began to take in children.

The children at Phuong's facility were somehow luckier than 18-month-old Do Nhat Long, who was killed by his babysitter Ho Ngoc Nho on November 16 in her rented room in HCMC's Thu Duc District.

Nho, who was arrested a day later, confessed to physically abusing the boy after he refused to eat and kept crying.

Elite privileges

The government's policy to privatize education has been a failure, limiting the growth of public preschool facilities while allowing private ones of dubious quality to mushroom, they say.

An unnamed HCMC legislator told Tuoi Tre that the city has enough money to build new schools but it has been unable to do so because of a 2005 government resolution and a 2002 decision that bans the construction of public kindergartens in "non-difficult" areas.

Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh, former head of preschool department under the city's Department of Education and Training, said many problems have surfaced after preschool education was mostly privatized.

"There have been serial cases of children being abused at private preschool facilities in 2007 and 2008, when their number boomed," she said.

Thanh said good private schools charge at least VND2 million (US$95) per month, a sum that most average families cannot afford. Given that there are not enough public schools to meet demand, there was a "boom in private schools with low fees, but of poor quality, carrying potential risks for the children," she said.

The limited number of public preschool facilities only admits children of local households or those with permanent residence registration, leaving a large number of migrants marginalized.

Vietnam's household registration system, or ho khau, gives families the rights of access to basic services like healthcare, schooling for children, and so on.

Le Thi Ha, a worker at the Linh Trung 1 Export Processing Zone, said she and her husband do not have a household or permanent residence registration in HCMC, so they could not send their child to a public school.

"We asked the landlord to keep our child for VND500,000 a month. It's our only choice as each of us earns only about VND2 million a month," she said.

Asked if she was concerned that her child may not get good care, education and enough food in such situations, she said: "I can only expect that my child does not fall or get injured."

The situation is the same for many migrant workers in big cities and industrial zones nationwide.

Poor management of preschool education has seen unlicensed private facilities taking advantage of parents desperate to have their children looked after while they work.

Even a mother on maternity leave, who has to stay at home to take care of her baby, can open a "family children group" and receive other children to earn extra money.

In a recent article in Thanh Nien, Khai Don, a blogger and journalist in HCMC, said there is a perception that only students with bad school records choose preschool training.

"And it is true that kindergarten teachers earn less than their peers teaching elementary school grades and higher," he said, adding that authorities also tend to invest more in elementary and high-school education, ignoring important preschool needs. 

According to a HCMC education department report in October, the city faces a shortage of nearly 300 kindergarten teachers and nearly as many kindergartens.

"Poor workers cannot claim the fundamental right of their children to a good education. And the poorly-managed kindergarten system is unable to have good teachers when they are paid even less than the poor workers," Don said.

"Meanwhile, innocent children continue to be battered and hurt without understanding why. Such experiences can traumatize them for life. "

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