Vietnam's race to top schools starts from 5th grade

By Binh Minh   March 19, 2024 | 07:18 pm PT
Vietnam's race to top schools starts from 5th grade
Students participate in an exam for 6th grade entrance at the Archimedes School in Hanoi, March 9, 2024. Photo courtesy of the Archimedes School
He was supposed to take six exams the entire day at two separate schools for entrance into 6th grade, but Hue’s 5th grade son couldn’t take it. He eventually gave up mid-way over fatigue.

On March 9, two middle schools Ngoi Sao Ha Noi-Hoang Mai and the Archimedes both organized entrance examinations. Bui Thi Hue, from Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan District, let her son take a shot for both schools.

After finishing the math, literature and English tests at Archimedes, Hue's son experienced a slight fever. They then returned home over a distance of 7 km, had a meal, and rested for about 10 minutes before another examination round in the afternoon at Ngoi Sao.

"After completing the math test at the second school, my son got tired and had to rest in the infirmary. It means he could not participate in the other two tests," Hue said.

Nguyen Ngoc Thu, from Dong Da District, said it was a little bit too "hasty" when there were only 45 minutes for lunch and moving between different sites.

Thu was worried that her child would get tired over the tight schedule, but seeing as they did the exams well, Thu breathed a sigh of relief.

"My child said the math exam at the Archimedes was more difficult as there were 40 questions to be done in 60 minutes," Thu said, adding that the test was only a basic one, and a more advanced version would take place later this month.

Cream of the crop

Hue and Thu are among thousands of parents who accompanied their children in securing a seat in the 6th grade of a reputable middle school in Vietnam's capital.

In recent years, a list of secondary schools in Hanoi has been circulating among the parents. It contained the names of top schools in several academic competitions, and where several students managed to get into specialized high schools.

Some of the schools have their own academic programs that specialize in math and other sciences, with a focus on the English language, and are taught alongside curricula from the U.S. or the U.K.

Besides the two aforementioned private schools, the list also contains the names of several other reputable schools, including the Hanoi-Amsterdam, the Foreign Language Secondary School, along with other schools in Cau Giay, Thanh Xuan and Nam Tu Liem Districts.

Most of them have entrance exams in June, testing potential students on math, literature and English.

This year, the Ngoi Sao Ha Noi-Hoang Mai school has over 1,000 candidates aiming for a seat at the school's 6th grade, which it is only looking for around 270 new 6th graders divided into eight classes.

At the Archimedes, over 3,000 students participated in the examination on March 9. While the school did not officially announce how many students it would admit, its main facility in Trung Yen typically has around 10 classes for the 6th grade, or less than 500 students.

Except for the Amsterdam school, the tuition fees for the other schools, no matter whether they are public or private ones, range at around VND3-9 million ($120-360) a month, other fees not included. A typical public secondary school for local students only costs VND300,000 a month.

Thu and Hue said they wanted to let their children enter the aforementioned schools as they have talent in math and English.

They believe that by entering these prestigious schools, their children will have more opportunities to achieve breakthroughs than they would from common education programs.

To let their child take the entrance exams, Hue and her husband have been spending time guiding the child’s hand ever since he entered primary school.

The boy had been studying English since first grade, and he took additional math and literature classes in 4th grade. The extra classes typically cost VND200,000-250,000 for each two-hour session.

"If he didn't take the extra classes for math and literature, he wouldn't be able to handle the tests," Hue said, adding that each school would have their own types of tests.

Thu has also brought her child to extra classes for the entire week, for math, literature and English, ever since third grade. Besides the extra classes, Thu also collects the school's coursework, as well as tests from previous years, for her child to practice on.

Great expectations

Experts said the race for the best 6th grade classes in Hanoi stems from the parents' own desires and expectations.

One of them is to put their children into a small classroom.

A principal of a primary school said that due to the lack of classrooms in certain districts at the capital, the number of students in a single class might be higher.

Per existing regulations, there should be no more than 45 students in a classroom at secondary schools, but certain schools in Hoang Mai and Hoan Kiem districts have already exceeded this threshold. For the 2024-2025 school year, the city has over 246,000 students entering 6th grade, an increase of 58,000 students from the previous year.

"Over worries about populated classrooms and the divided attention of teachers, many parents have been finding high-quality or private schools for their children, with each classroom having a roster of around 30 students," the principal said.

Several parents have also been aiming to let their children get a head start in the race into good high schools, so they pick out secondary schools with high rates of high school admission.

For example, during the last high school entrance examination, the average test score for students at the Cau Giay Secondary School was at 43/50, and around 500 students at the school managed to get into specialized schools.

Pham Hiep, head of the research team for education innovation at the Thanh Do University in Hanoi, said there's "nothing wrong" with parents putting their children into the race for top schools, including private ones.

Some parents have their own educational viewpoints and are willing to pay more tuition for their children. Several private schools can satisfy these demands, he said.

Tran Nhat Minh, founder of the MathExpress club, said another factor that influences parents' decision to let their children enroll in the "prestigious" schools is because their students have been carefully curated and trained, and have good capabilities.

Surrounded by peers with good abilities, their children can also get better.

However, Minh said, there's also a large number of parents who push their children to race into top schools without realizing that the kids are not up for it.

A teacher, who has spent years helping students gain entry into different schools, said several students have been unfocused during class or did not do their homework, because they were too busy or tired from taking extra classes for math and English in different centers.

The teacher said some parents just send their children to any class whatsoever, without caring if the children actually want to study, or if they are actually capable of handling that class.

"It’s not an effective way to study, to be honest. The children may get bored and lose their motivation for studying if they have to get into the race too early, while their parents waste their money and time," the teacher said.

Teachers say that no matter which school students are in, their parents should instill in them a serious attitude towards learning.

Parents should also guide children on an appropriate path that aligns with their own academic capabilities and the family's financial situations.

Besides Archimedes and Ngoi Sao, Hue plans to have her son try out at the Foreign Language Secondary School and two other schools.

"That way, there will be a higher chance of getting into a good studying environment," she said.

If he fails to get into any, he would study at the school near his home.

Thu said she would let her child take the exam with a stress-free attitude.

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