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Why Vietnamese children outperform the British at school

Hoa Binh primary school in Vinh Long province
Understanding why Vietnam performs so well could help other governments boost their own education systems - Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock Photo

It’s similar to Mother’s Day, says Dr Phung Duc Tung – except it’s not about parents at all.

Every year on November 20, children in Vietnam buy flowers and hatch plans to celebrate their teachers, in a “joyful” nationwide holiday that resembles Britain’s celebrations of mums and dads.

“Everyone in Vietnam knows the day,” says Dr Tung, the director of the Mekong Development Research Institute in Hanoi. “The teachers consider it a very important day, so they’re proud of their careers. And society does also, it’s our way of showing respect.”

It’s moments like this that fuel Vietnam’s remarkably effective education system, he adds. According to the World Bank, children not only outperform their counterparts in wealthier southeast Asian countries in reading and science assessments, but also the UK, Japan and Norway.

Vietnam has also bucked the trend of slumping standards in developing countries. A 2022 study looking at female literacy rates by the Centre for Global Development found the quality of education has fallen in two thirds of low and middle income countries since the 1960s, including Nigeria, India and Bangladesh. Vietnam is one of a handful that improved.

Students sitting at their desks at school at Kien Phouc School in Tien Giang Province
Vietnamese children have learned more at school by the age of eight than their counterparts in Peru, India and Ethiopia - Tony Wood/Alamy Stock Photo

Experts say that understanding why the country performs so well could help other governments with restricted resources boost their own education systems. Doing so is critical for both economies and individuals.

Despite huge progress since the millennium, more than 240 million children in developing countries are still missing out on school – including 100 million in sub Saharan Africa 85 million in central and south Asia – with massive ramifications for their futures.

According to Unesco, the global poverty rate would be halved if all adults completed secondary education, and a child born to a mother who finished high school is 31 per cent more likely to survive beyond their fifth birthday. Meanwhile the World Bank estimates there is a 10 per cent increase in earnings for every extra year of schooling completed.

But pinning down the precise secret to Vietnam’s success has not proved easy.

“To be honest, I don’t think anyone has a completely definitive answer,” says Dr Abhijeet Singh, an associate professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, whose research focuses on school systems in developing countries. “But what is incredibly clear from Vietnam is that it’s possible, with limited resources, to get essential verbal and quantitative skills up to the level seen in developed countries.”

Discipline... for teachers

Various explanations for success have, of course, been put forward, chief among them the quality and dedication of the country’s teachers. Not only are teachers respected – as exemplified by the Mother’s Day-style celebrations – but they are well qualified university graduates who receive regular, practical training. They also turn up for work.

“In other developing countries, there’s lots of evidence that… one in five teachers don’t show up on any given day,” says Prof Paul Glewwe, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota who has long studied education in lower income settings. “But in Vietnam teachers show up – if they don’t they’ll get in trouble… there is a real discipline to the way the education system is run.”

This is partly due to the Communist Party apparatus, which prizes education highly. Ho Chi Minh, the country’s founding father, launched a mass literacy programme soon after gaining power – he believed “an illiterate nation is a weak nation” and suggested “learning is a lifelong ambition”.

This attitude persists, with about 18 per cent of the state’s budget spent on education, according to local media. Teachers who accept rural postings are also paid more, in an effort to combat inequalities between cities and the countryside. And unlike other nations at comparative income levels, girls actually outperform boys in primary and secondary school.

“In the communist socialist system, they tried to impress equality into the school system… women were supposed to be given equal rights as men,” says Dr Hai-Anh H Dang, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “It can be difficult to assess the impact of cultural values, but it does seem to play a significant role in Vietnam’s success.”

There are also tangible benefits for teachers who do well, including prestigious “teacher excellence” awards for the best, while job performance and promotions are based on how pupils perform.

Students pose for photos with their teacher on the Vietnamese Teacher's day in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam
Vietnamese children pose for a picture with their teacher on the country's annual day of appreciation for educators - Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

All this pays off in the classroom. According to research by Dr Singh, Vietnamese children have learned more at school by the age of eight than their counterparts in Peru, India and Ethiopia. The study analysed identical tests taken by pupils in the countries, and found an extra year of schooling in Vietnam increased the chance a child could solve a simple maths problem by 21 percentage points, compared to just six in India.

“A year of school is just vastly different in Vietnam… it seems to give you twice as much knowledge as a year in India or in Peru,” says Dr Singh. “If you were able to make children in India and Peru learn as much in a year as in Vietnam, you’d close 90 per cent of the knowledge gap that’s emerged by the age of eight.”

He adds that the teacher’s objectives also have a bearing. While systems like India’s are a “series of tournaments, with high stakes exam after high stakes exam” to identify the top students, Vietnam offers a “high level of basic skills to everyone”.

“There is very much an emphasis on every child, on having relatively high expectations of learning for all – and that really is a substantial difference,” Dr Singh says.

That’s not to say that there’s not a competitive culture around education. School is still considered “the best way to a better life”, says Dr Tung, and parents invest a lot of time and money in their children’s learning. It’s common to have private tuition, for instance, while exam results are given directly to parents so they can track their children’s progress.

“The performance of children affects the reputation of the parents, and we’re all very proud if our children do well,” says Mr Tung, who’s two children are now at university.

Challenges persist

While this encourages pupils to work hard it also has drawbacks, with students under huge pressure to perform in exams – especially as places for college and university remain limited.

“It can be very stressful for students, and we do see mental health challenges and even suicides when results are not so good or do not meet parent’s expectations, which is really terrible,” Dr Tung says.

There are other challenges facing Vietnam’s system, too. Despite efforts, students in cities still have more opportunities – 76 per cent of teenagers are enrolled in secondary school in rural regions, compared to 90 per cent in urban areas, according to the World Bank.

Ethnic minorities also fall behind, and so do poorer students. By the age of 19, only a fifth of students from the poorest 20 per cent of society remain in education, compared with 80 per cent of those from the wealthiest 20 per cent.

Some also fear teacher shortages are looming, as more top graduates are lured to the private sector or overseas opportunities. How to increase teacher pay and perks is currently being discussed by the government. At the same time, some argue that the system needs to focus more on the language, computer and teamwork skills desired by industry, and curriculum reform is ongoing.

But for Dr Singh, the fact that Vietnam is even in a position to discuss “soft skills and innovation” demonstrates how effective the current system is compared to other countries with a similar GDP.

“Criticisms I hear about the Vietnamese system seem substantially more similar to what you hear about [developed] countries, which are about five times richer, than the discussions we are having about much of South Asia and sub Saharan Africa,” he says.

“Discussing whether kids are creative, and what the next frontier of innovation would be – that’s a whole next level of worrying compared to what you need to do to read, to compute basic maths.”

Vietnamese boys playing football in front of school building in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Vietnam should inspire other countries to provide a high quality education, in spite of national income levels - Catwalkphotos/Alamy Stock Photo

So what, importantly, should other countries at a similar income level replicate? Experts say it’s hard to pinpoint, especially when so much of Vietnam’s success is tied up in its culture.

“It’s very difficult to transfer the values of Vietnam onto some other country, that’s impossible,” says Dr Dang. But, he adds, ensuring teachers are well paid, well respected and dedicated would be a good place for other nations to start.

Dr Tung agrees. “The most important thing is to change the perception in society about the importance of education. The second is you have to train the teachers and have incentives for them to work hard. And in Vietnam we have a very good, transparent monitoring system to measure teacher performance, and people look at that to increase salary or promotion.”

Policies to support poorer parents to send their children to school and encourage teachers to work in remote regions are also critical, adds Dr Tung – as is widespread and affordable internet access.

But overall, Vietnam’s most important legacy is to prove that a strong education system is possible even where resources are limited.

“I don’t think there’s any manual of how you teach if you want Vietnamese outcomes,” says Dr Singh. “But Vietnam should be an inspiration to prove a high quality education is possible, despite national income levels.”

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