The good, the bad and the ugly: Vietnam's booming after-school tutoring business

By Simon Stanley   April 17, 2017 | 07:00 am GMT+7
The good, the bad and the ugly: Vietnam's booming after-school tutoring business
According to the World Bank, approximately 27 percent of Vietnamese households send their children to private lessons or tutors, spending between one and five percent of the total household income in the process. Photo by Reuters

'The most harmful side of the tutoring industry is under-qualified tutors.'

“They never actually met me,” said Daniel Larrosa, a Ph.D. law graduate from Liverpool, England.

He was talking about his former employer, a large tutoring agency based in Ho Chi Minh City through which, in 2016, he began tutoring two Vietnamese sisters who had been expelled from school for behavioral issues.

After submitting his CV via the agency’s Facebook page, Larrosa was immediately sent the contact details of the girls’ mother. “To this day, I have had no face-to-face contact with that company,” he explained. “I think that’s the case for many of the [tutoring] agencies in Saigon. They’re just making connections.”

But things are changing.

With a booming economy, and with almost a quarter of its population under the age of 15, Vietnam’s education sector is growing faster than ever.

For the expanding middle-classes, an international education is often seen as an essential step towards bagging a coveted space at a foreign university, and out-of-hours lessons are widely regarded as the best way to achieve that. According to the World Bank, approximately 27 percent of Vietnamese households send their children to private lessons or tutors, spending between one and five percent of the total household income in the process.

Fortunately for the two sisters and their mother, Larrosa turned out to be a talented, caring and dedicated teacher. Indeed, when they were unable to afford any further sessions, he ditched the agency and began tutoring the girls for free. “They’re only four and six,” he said. “I just want to help them get back into school.”

Of course, his help with the girls is desperately needed, but before coming to Vietnam, Larrosa worked in South Korea where he saw first-hand the negative effects of excessive, often unnecessary tutoring, where physical and mental exhaustion is just the start.

“If done badly, it can make children feel like they’re being punished,” he said. “For those who are getting nothing but 100 percent in every test, if they’re still being sent to do three hours of tutoring every day - tutoring that they clearly don’t need - they can end up feeling like there’s nothing they can do to please their parents. They can develop serious self-esteem issues, even depression, because they never feel like they’re achieving.”

It’s a downward spiral that a new breed of tutors and tutoring agencies are looking to stamp out. The International Tutor Group (ITG), based in Ho Chi Minh City, is one of them. Larrosa joined the firm in October 2016.

“I don’t believe in hothousing students,” said Will Church, the firm’s director of education and Larrosa’s new boss. “Children are under a lot of pressure to succeed, both from their schools and from their families, and it all starts to escalate.”

Specializing in international curriculum support from primary school upwards, ITG takes a refreshingly holistic approach to learning. With tailor-made sessions of just one or two hours per week, including an element of personal mentoring and emotional support, Church and his team focus on getting the best results while avoiding student burnout and disengagement.

Experts point out that many agencies have failed to employ highly-trained educators, with a strict focus on curriculum-specific lessons. And whether employed by such an agency or simply working privately, tutors can sometimes become a hindrance to the learning process, especially if the sole aim is to accelerate the student for no logical reason.

“I remember one instance where a student showed up on the first day of term and demanded extension work immediately," said M., an international school teacher who asked to remain anonymous. "Her tutor had taken her through the entire textbook during the school holidays, [but] it quickly became apparent that she didn’t understand any of it."

For Church, tutoring is something that must be delivered in a very careful way, and while the majority of students receive sufficient support from their schools and their teachers, he feels it’s the quieter, less confident pupils that can benefit the most.

“You take a student like that, and you put them in a one-to-one environment with a talented and caring tutor, and it can really transform the way they see a subject, and also the way they see themselves,” he said.

Hung, who asked for his real name be changed, had previously been using the services of a private tutor, an experience he described as “not great”.

“The most harmful side of the tutoring industry is under-qualified tutors,” he added. “A lot of them only teach what the kids ask for, not necessarily what they need to know.”

Erik Vian, another parent, also had difficulties in the past with private tutors who, he said, took a more old-fashioned approach: “They were just trying to go through [a textbook] as fast as they could, and it wasn’t fun. My kids really enjoy their sessions now.”

Of course, there are plenty of amazing private and agency-based tutors out there, but as long as there are parents looking to boost a child’s chances of success at any cost, there will always be someone out there willing to take their money - whether qualified to do so or not.

But before parting with the cash, warns Church, ask yourself these questions: Why does your child need a tutor? Is it because they lack confidence and have maybe had a poor result in a mock exam, or is it simply because your neighbor’s kids have a tutor and yours don’t?

“Only for the right reasons, and with the right tutor, can after-hours schooling succeed in the long term,” he said, adding that parents must always verify the qualifications, teaching experience and curriculum knowledge of any potential tutor.

“You need to have a clear goal in mind,” added Larrosa. “When your child reaches that goal, they’ll realize that all of the work was building towards something, that there was a point to it. They need a light at the end of the tunnel.”