Vietnam's rat race begins in middle school

By Thanh Hang, Binh Minh   May 24, 2023 | 03:29 pm PT
Vietnam's rat race begins in middle school
Students check their notebooks before entering the exam room for the high-school entrance exam in Hanoi, June 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy
As the high school entrance exams approach, senior students at Hanoi middle schools find little time to sleep or eat between back-to-back extra classes.

Hoang Linh is a ninth grader at a school in Hanoi's Cau Giay District. For the upcoming high-school entrance exam in three weeks, Linh has applied to Quang Trung High School in Dong Da District.

The school set its minimum admission scores at 7.7 points out of 10 for each subject last year. But since Linh has only been able to score about 7 points in each subject, she cannot help but keep worrying herself sick.

After her regular classes, Linh takes after-school classes before returning home and studying on her own. On average, she spends about 13 hours or more studying every day.

Linh lives just one km from her middle school, so every day after lunch her father picks her up for a half-hour nap at home before afternoon classes.

Linh’s official school-day then does not stop until 5 p.m., when her mother takes her to a private center for extra classes 5 km from her school.

When she’s lucky, Linh has time for a rapid dinner or snacks from vendors in front of the school while waiting for her mother. Often she will eat something while riding on the back seat of her mother’s motorbike. But when her regular classes run too late, she does not have time to eat anything at all and just has a drink instead. Linh said that skipping dinner like this is common practice among her peers currently studying for the high school entrance exams.

Linh’s extra classes usually end at 10 p.m., but sometimes later. Normally, Linh gets home at around 11 p.m.

But she does not go straight to bed. She continues studying for around two more hours. Sometimes she does not sleep until after the clock strikes 2 a.m.

At 15, Linh weighs just 35 kg after losing two kilograms in the past week thanks to stress, lack of sleep and her resulting eating disorder. The girl said many people refuse to believe that she is already a ninth grader because of her small stature.

"I'm aware of the tight schedule and the pressure, but I still have to study hard because the exam is getting closer. I must score one point higher in each subject for a better chance," she said.

For the upcoming high-school entrance exam, which will take place on June 10-12 in Hanoi, students will have tests in the three mandatory subjects of Math, Vietnamese literature and English, as well as one elective natural science subject (Physics, Chemistry or Biology), and one elective social science subject (History, Geography, or Civic Education).

‘Try a little harder’

In Thanh Tri District, ninth grader Hoang Nam is not any less busy than Linh.

Aside from two formal shifts at school, Nam also takes extra classes at night and over the weekend. He has applied for two schools that have average admission scores of 6.85 and 6.25 per subject each.

Nam has always been able to score 7 points for each subject on several mock exams, but he is still worried. When he returns home at 9 every night, he continues studying.

Nam’s mother, Phuong, said she and her husband take turns driving their son to and from school and extra classes. They don’t allow him to ride his bicycle because they say he’s working too hard already.

"He is the one that will take the exam but we’re all under pressure," said Phuong.

Phuong said it pains her heart every time she sees her som too exhausted to finish all his homework.

But still, she and her husband want him to pass the exam because she believes a public school will provide a "healthier" environment than private schools.

"If my child was not a good student, I would decide right away for him to enroll in a private school. But my son studies quite well and he just needs to try a little harder," she said.

Rough race

To win a ticket to a public 10th grade school, Linh, Nam and tens of thousands of 9th graders are literally racing against time to get themselves ready for the exam.

Although there are no specific statistics, it is "very common" for students to take extra classes to prep for exams, said To Thi Hai Yen, principal of Giang Vo Secondary School in Ba Dinh District.

Teachers have pointed out three main causes of the over-studying problem.

The first is the fierce competition.

Vu Khac Ngoc, a teacher at Hoc Mai, a private company providing extra classes online, said for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year, around 105,000 ninth graders have applied for the entrance exam but public high schools across the city will only accept a total of 70,000.

The situation is much more severe in the inner-city area, where almost 45,000 students have registered for the exam while public schools there will admit just 21,980. In suburban areas, 60,000 students will compete for 48,000 slots in public schools.

The second problem educators point to Hanoi’s official public school admissions policy.

The city has been divided into 12 enrollment zones.

Each student is allowed to apply to three schools at most. Of those schools, two must be in the district where their residence is registered. Candidates who fail to gain entrance at their first choice will be considered for their next choice, but their scores must be 1-2 points higher than the admission score of that school.

"This is an outdated way of admission, causing anxiety for both students and their families, for fear of failing all their aspirations," said Ngoc.

The difference intuition fees between public and private schools is the third problem cited by insiders.

The principal of a secondary school in Dong Da District who requested anonymity said that over the last two years, the maximum tuition fee for public high school in Hanoi has beenVND109,000 (US$4.62) per month, while for the next academic year, it will range between VND100,000 and VND300,000 per month, a hundred times lower than that of a private school.

Currently, tuition fees at private schools range between VND4.5 million and VND86 million per month, excluding other costs such as lunch, uniforms and facility fees.

Meanwhile, the average income in Hanoi was VND6 million per month as of 2021, according to the General Statistics Office.

"The cost of private schools is completely out of the question for most parents in Hanoi," said the principal.

They also believed that in addition to financial factors, it is also not easy for a student who has attended public schools from grade 1 to 9 to integrate into a private school.

That makes both parents and students apprehensive, thereby raising expectations for public schools, he concluded.

Parents wait for their children outside an exam room in Hanoi on the first day of the high-school entrance exam in June 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Parents wait for their children outside a school during the high-school entrance exam in Hanoi, June 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

To Thi Hai Yen, Principal of Giang Vo Secondary School, advised students to spend time studying on their own instead of taking too many extra classes.

She said one of the most important exam preparation skills is the proper use of time, and students should study early in the morning and avoid staying up late, while also making sure they arrange enough time to eat and rest to avoid exhaustion.

According to principal Yen, parents should also have backup plans for their children.

She said many private schools and vocational schools are of "good quality," and families should not necessarily frame their choices only on public schools.

However, these solutions are only the tip of an iceberg, said Ngoc from the Hoc Mai online center. He said Hanoi should adjust its rules by allowing students to register at as many as schools as they wish. And admission score requirements should stay the same at all options, even if students change their minds about which school they want to go to, he said.

Linh is aware that her parents have a backup plan for her: Luong Van Can High School, a private school not far from her home.

But she refuses to give in.

"I am also well aware of my family’s financial condition, and it is still better if I get into a public school. I will try my best so that if I fail, I will not regret it, because at least I will have done everything I could."

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