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Getting into best high schools brings out worst in urbanization

By Thanh Hang, Hoang Khanh, Thu Huong   July 17, 2022 | 10:30 pm PT
Getting into best high schools brings out worst in urbanization
Students participate in a high school entrance exam in Hanoi, June 18, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy
The cut-throat competition to get into Vietnam's high schools has revealed a dark side of urbanization that destroys the very notion of a level playing field.

This situation, with students in major city centers having to fight tooth and nail to get into a reputed school while other institutions in the suburbs are unable to get enough admissions, affects millions of children and their parents.

For many years, Hanoi has split its 30 districts into 12 areas for the purpose of high school entrance examinations. This year, each student gets three public high school choices to register with certain conditions. The first two priorities have to be located in the area that the student resides. The third choice can be any school they wish.

If a student's scores allow entrance to her/his top choice school, she/he cannot apply to the their second and third choice schools. If students fail to get into their top school choice, they can apply for admission to their second and third choices, but the bar would be 1-2 points higher than what the schools demand. And once the three choices are made, they cannot be changed.

Such admission restrictions have led to harsh competition between students to get into the best schools. There are areas where there are too many students and too few schools, and vice versa.

Students living in a particular district have to compete with several peers to get into the high school they covet, but in a different district, every student resident can get admission to any high school in the area because there are not enough students applying in the first place.

Dog-eat-dog

The high school entrance exam was held late last month and the results were revealed on recent days. Given the harsh competition, some students scoring as high as seven or eight out of 10 for each subject still could not get into their desired schools.

Hanoi's 12 downtown districts have a population of around 3.74 million, according to city statistics released earlier this year. They account for 44.6 percent of the city population, although they take up just 10 percent of the city's total area.

These 12 downtown districts alone have 36 public high schools, while the other 18 districts in the city have 71 schools in total. Despite having much fewer schools, around 44,628 students picked a school in the downtown areas as their first choice this year, accounting for 42 percent of all students.

The competitive rate in downtown areas is around 1/1.89 (one student would need to compete against 1.89 others to get into the same school). This figure for suburban areas is 1/1.35.

Cau Giay District in particular has the highest competitive rate of 1/2.66. Over 3,700 students picked schools in Cau Giay as their top choice, even though the district only has two high schools capable of receiving 1,395 students in total.

Cau Giay, alongside Thanh Xuan and Dong Da, are among Hanoi's most densely-populated districts. Cau Giay was formed quite recently in 1996 and it has seen high population growth and a large influx of immigrants.

The same thing is also happening in other districts like Ha Dong (competitive rate 1/2.2), Ba Dinh and Hoan Kiem (1/1.97), Dong Da (1/1.9) and Thanh Xuan (1/1.98). Among these, no district has more than four public high schools and the number of students applying is at least twice the number of available spots.

In districts like Tay Ho, Hai Ba Trung, Hoang Mai, Long Bien, Bac Tu Liem and Nam Tu Liem, competitive rates are a bit lower, but still fall between 1/1.58-1/1.7.

Downtown districts are usually where the best schools are usually at, and they typically demand high entrance examination scores from their students.

On the other hand, there are 18 suburban Hanoi districts that account for 90 percent of the capital's total area, yet only have around 900,000 people. As such, their competitive rate is considerably lower at 1/1.2-1/1.3. Each of these districts also has around 4-5 public high schools.

Gia Lam as a suburban district is somewhat of an outlier, having a competitive rate at 1/1.64, the highest of all suburban districts and even higher than certain downtown districts like Long Bien and Nam Tu Liem. Its proximity to downtown areas and a population of 300,000 with just four high schools could be factors in the unusually high competitive rate.

In this year's high school entrance examination, there were four high schools in Hanoi where all students who applied would theoretically get admitted because there were not enough applicants in the first place. No surprise that all of them are located in suburban areas.

Over the past five years, the number of students applying for public high schools in Hanoi has exceeded the preferred schools' capacity by 18,600-31,400. This year, the disparity is 29,500 students, the highest in the last four years.

Meanwhile, in HCMC

While there are no districts in Ho Chi Minh City that has seen as high a competitive rate as Hanoi's 1/2.66, similar issues are still prevalent.

The southern metropolis's downtown areas take up around 20 percent of the city's total area, but its population is a staggering 7.1 million people, accounting for 77 percent the city’s total, according to data from the General Statistics Office last year.

Meanwhile, 78 percent of students typically choose a high school in downtown area as their first choice and only 22 percent opt for suburban area schools. The average competitive rate in HCMC's downtown area is around 1/1.52 and around 1/1.01 in suburban areas.

As in Hanoi, HCMC students are allowed to pick three school choices (except for certain specialized ones). City authorities advise students to pick a school near where they live.

The best high schools in HCMC see competitive rates of around 1/2-1/2.5. Each of these districts has an average population of 200,000, with Thu Duc City – formed by combining three erstwhile districts - having a population of over a million people.

While students have to compete hard to win a seat at the top downtown schools, their counterparts in suburban districts like Binh Chanh, Can Gio, Nha Be, Cu Chi and Hoc Mon, don’t have enough students applying.

The Trung Lap High School in Cu Chi, for example, wants to accept 540 students this year, but only 274 applied. There are schools in Can Gio District where teachers have to encourage students to go to school.

HCMC might see over 21,000 students not being able to enter a public high school in the city this year, the highest number in the past five years.

Choosing battles

Do Dinh Dao, principal of the Nguyen Huu Tho high school in HCMC's District 4, said suburban areas often have low population density, meaning there are fewer students likely to pick local schools as their top choice.

Furthermore, parents and students prefer downtown schools because of the higher quality of education they can get there even if their admission requirements are tougher.

Dao said several families pick their second and third school choices at random, so when their children fail to get into their top school choice, they would be sent to a suburban school to study for a semester or two, before being transferred to a downtown school.

"We cannot force parents and students to choose schools, but they should understand the importance of picking schools in accordance with their children's academic level, the family's financial capabilities and ease of travel," Dao said, adding that suburban schools should have policies to encourage students to apply, while downtown schools should be willing to accept more students so the admission process wouldn't be too competitive.

The principal of a suburban high school in Hanoi, who wanted to remain unnamed, said students should be allowed to freely pick schools regardless of their locations.

"Forcing students to apply for schools in their own areas has prevented capable students from applying for top schools, simply because they live in the suburbs. On the other hand, students in downtown districts like Cau Giay and Bac Tu Liem should be able to apply to schools with lower requirements in the suburbs if their academic level isn't good enough," she said.

"Parents should not make their children carry their own dreams and expect them to enter top schools as a matter of pride or prestige," she said, adding that policies should also encourage high-quality teachers to move to the suburbs.

"When teachers' quality improves, so would education quality."

 
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