Vietnam’s High Schools for the Gifted

A Huge Investment

Earlier this month I picked up a news story about a massive investment in Vietnam’s High Schools for the Gifted.

The article announced that Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training had just announced a 10-year investment programme with a value of VND 2.3 trillion (around $118 million).

Let’s just take a moment to get that into perspective.

This is a communist country with a population of some 86 million, and a GDP per capita of $2,942 that plans to spend half as much again per annum as the United States (population 311 million, GDP per capita $47,701) spends currently on the Javits Fund (assuming it survives current efforts to terminate it entirely).

The Vietnamese Government wants to ensure that, by 2020, there will be a gifted high school in each major city and province, so 2% of the country’s high school students can be accommodated. There are currently 73 such schools spread throughout Vietnam.

The money will be used to upgrade the buildings and equipment, so each student has a well-equipped study area of 30 square metres, and to improve the quality of teaching, curriculum development and underpinning research. Some $32 million of the total will be set aside for teacher development, including attendance at university courses abroad. The Ministry has an interim target that all gifted high schools will reach a common national standard by 2015.

Fifteen of the most prominent schools will be selected for initial investment, bringing them up to the standard of comparable institutions elsewhere in South East Asia and the wider world. A further 17 schools, located in poorer provinces, will also be given priority.

Following the announcement there was some scepticism from principals of gifted high schools given current conditions at their institutions. One said his students currently enjoyed just one square metre of study space; another that 14 classes containing a total of 401 students are currently sharing a single computer room. The article notes that a recent Ministry survey found that many gifted high schools lack science laboratories and even decent washing and toilet facilities.

Inside Vietnam’s Gifted High Schools

Wikipedia includes a brief article about the High School for Gifted Students at Hanoi National University of Education, known as CSP, which was established for gifted young mathematicians in 1966 during the Vietnamese War and is one of the oldest of the gifted high schools. It now caters for students gifted in science, IT and literature as well.

Entry is by competitive examination and students pursue an accelerated curriculum in their specialism. They board at the school and use the University’s laboratory and sports facilities. The students have a proud record in international Mathematics and Science Olympiads.

There is evidence online that education at a Vietnamese gifted high school is highly demanding:

‘As students of gifted school, each of us received 55,000 dong a month, and we must study well to deserve it. Before the university entrance exam, our teacher said that we must obtain at least 9.5 in our major….Failing the university entrance exams must not occur with gifted students. But I failed and I had to apply to another university. I was so depressed that I thought that I needed to end my life.’

Another student writes:

‘I get up early at 4.30 am every day, though I don’t need any alarm clock. Getting up early to do exercises has become a normal thing since I entered the gifted school. After I finish doing exercises, I hurry to change my clothes to go to school, where I spend the whole morning on five learning periods. After finishing the five periods, I hurry get home, have lunch and then learn again.

I always have to be present at 2 o’clock at school to attend the lessons on physical exercises and national defense and some special subjects. After that, I return home to have some food and then go to extra classes. I have to go to extra classes, because without the tutoring hours, I will not be able to understand lessons well.

I return home late at 9 pm every day. After that, I review my lessons until 11 or 12 pm and then go to bed.

Since I entered the gifted school, I have had to say farewell to TV, my one-time closest friend, because I have no time.

At school, teachers always set high requirements and have high hopes for us, therefore, all of us have to work very hard. Sometimes, I think that we are like engines, because we only do one thing, learning and learning.

If I don’t learn too hard, I will be weeded out from the gifted classes and I will have to learn in a normal class.

I never want to be sick, because I will have to stay at home. If so, I will not be able to attend lessons and later I may not understand lessons, then I will lag behind my classmates.

I am now at the 11th grade. I cherished the hope of studying at a gifted school when I was a small child. My brother was also at a gifted school and I wanted to follow him. Honestly speaking, gifted school students are respected and my mother is proud of us. She has sacrificed her time and her money to feed her gifted school students.

I learned so hard when I prepared for the gifted school entrance exams that I lost five kilos in weight.

All of us are learning so hard. But I feel I am luckier than my friends, because I have good health. One of my friends once lost consciousness because of overworking. ‘Stress’ is a word familiar to every gifted student, because all of us have to learn well to satisfy our parents and our teachers

It is clear that gifted school students learn very well. However, it seems that we are very bad at many other things. We don’t know how to communicate well with people. Some of my friends of the same age call us ‘battery hens’. At first, I got angry, but I think they are right. I wish I had time for relaxing and entertainment. We are not machines.’

And there is also stress for the teachers given the annual competition between the gifted high schools to get the largest number of students into the most prestigious universities:

‘ Everyone well knows that Le Hong Phong Gifted School is a prestigious school in Ho Chi Minh City. Therefore, when you are a teacher there, you must be responsible for maintaining and bringing into play the school’s traditions. We are under heavy pressure, and we unintentionally transfer that pressure to students.’

There are signs that much-needed reforms are under way, but the lot of students and teachers in the Vietnamese system is likely to remain a daunting one to their peers in the West, who can only marvel at this level of dedication and self-sacrifice.


November 2011

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