Behind the Scenes of Vietnam’s Education: Dropping out from the formal program and having a second attempt



An overview of the research carried out thus far by the author on educational opportunities (at a charity class and a continuing education center) for children and youth facing difficulties such as poverty in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and the outcomes of that research.


Main Text

Asia is now achieving rapid economic development. Skyscrapers stand in rows in the city centers while top-brand stores and restaurants serving the world’s cuisines line the streets. At the same time, there are many socially disadvantaged people forced to lead difficult daily lives in a society in which great changes are occurring. Examples of these disadvantaged people are street children and child labourers, who are sometimes taken up by the media in Japan. The notion of “children working” is, of itself, a perfectly normal one and not necessarily an evil thing. In the context of social development, however, it is generally argued that child labour is a problem that should be eliminated as soon as possible.

Harboring doubts about such arguments, and thinking that child labor should be reexamined from a neutral point of view, were the catalysts for beginning this current research. With almost no previous research to serve as an example, the author firstly conducted an interview survey with street children in Vietnam’s urban areas. What was glimpsed there was that, while these children were contributing to meager household budgets by working, many of them were also undergoing some form of education for their futures and thought of their work in a positive way. In Vietnam, there are many who believe that “Even if you are poor you can overcome difficulties and build a better future by studying hard” and “Schooling is the only means by which poverty can be overcome.” Thus, while there is nothing unusual about working and studying at the same time, what educational opportunities are available for poor children has not been made sufficiently clear. The author is therefore currently proceeding with research that focuses on education in Vietnam, especially non-formal education and the learners who are taking advantage of it.

The education facilities that have been taken up and surveyed thus far are a “charity class” and a “continuing education center” in Ho Chi Minh City, southern Vietnam. The former are mainly classes providing elementary education (though there are also some that provide lower secondary school education) run by private organizations such as NGOs or religious groups for children who face difficulties in attending elementary school due to poverty and so on. While the classes are run privately, they coordinate with the local public elementary schools, making it possible to obtain an elementary school graduation qualification at the end of the course. While moving up to the lower secondary school is possible with this qualification, permission for entrance may not be given due, for example, to age or achievement record, and for these children the continuing education center (CEC) mentioned above is one school that they can advance to.

Since the continuing education center is a publicly established facility with the goal of providing people with opportunities to continue learning throughout life, there is no age limit for entrance and both lower secondary school and high school programs can be taken (However not every CEC have those classes because programs held at CECs depends on the needs of residents). The continuing education centers stem from the existence of “continuation education” mainly for the Communist Party youth cadres and agricultural and industrial workers in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and were formerly actively developed to provide educational opportunities to youth workers. When I carried out a survey in Ho Chi Minh City in September 2010, however, I found that the current continuing education centers had become places of learning for a very wide range of youth. The learners can be divided into three groups according to the reason for entering the center for study. The first group, who have come to the center due to family poverty or employment; the second group, who have entered due to failure to enter a school because of insufficient academic ability, or who simply dislike studying; and then the third group, who have entered for other reasons (e.g. transfer procedures were not carried out on time after moving home, dismissal from school due to fighting and so on, overage due to leave of absence from school for sickness, insufficient time for study at lower secondary school due to dance or music education, and so on.)

It became clear from the results of the survey that there were many learners from poor households (about 30%) at the center, and that there were very few “cases where learners had advanced to the continuing education center after having taken an elementary school program in a charity class,” which the author had originally predicted. In contrast, there were many cases of learners who had been studying at a normal elementary or lower secondary school, had to leave the school due to family poverty, and then after a certain period of employment had come to the center to resume their education. The learners in this group were older than those in other groups. Many of them had left their parental home to come to Ho Chi Minh City for employment, and were earning their own living and study expenses by working when they did not have classes, as well as sending money back to their hometowns.

The second group of learners, who had entered the center due to insufficient academic ability or a dislike of study, was present in about the same numbers as the first group. During the survey, many of these learners said that they had frequently been absent from school and could therefore not keep up with the schoolwork, because they enjoyed being with their friends too much, or in recent years, for example, had become overenthusiastic about online games. There were cases where learners had been requested to repeat a year because they failed to reach the pass mark in the end-of-year examination, which acted as a trigger to dropping out of school before graduating.

What was interesting when coming to collate the survey cases at the continuing education center was that there were many learners who had dropped out of lower secondary school due to leaving before graduation or having to repeat a year, and so on. A lower secondary school education became a part of “compulsory education” in Vietnam in 2001, and while lower secondary schools are being positioned as the most important facility to bear this duty, it was possible to see that the continuing education centers appeared to be turning into receptacles for youth who had dropped out of the lower secondary school system. On the other hand, seen from the viewpoint of the learners, it could also be said that the continuing education centers are places where learners can obtain a second chance to study after temporarily leaving schools due to reasons such as poverty, poor achievement and illness. The centers therefore formed a system where learners could come to try again any number of times even if they had slipped off the rails of the official route due to failure or dropping out.

While entering the centers may be easy, continuing to study, graduation and advancing to the next class depend on the learner’s will to study and motivation. At the center surveyed by the author, many learners (in some classes more than half of the learners originally enrolled) did in fact leave part way through a term, or had to repeat a class due to a poor achievement record. The first group of learners, from poor households, however, had relatively high study motivation, and since graduation and advancement ratios of the night classes that many of these learners were enrolled in were much higher than the other class and it seems that learners from poor household have an advantage over the others about the educational achievement in the CECs. As noted above, there is a strong tendency in Vietnam to consider learning and studying as a means to overcome difficulties. During the period in which the author was residing in Ho Chi Minh City, newspapers, the television and other media nearly every day introduced children and youths who, though poor, had worked hard at their studies, and this was frequently accompanied by this kind of remark. The first group of learners at the continuing education center can also be said to be an example of this.

At the continuing education center focused on by the author in this survey there were only youth who had returned to study and the total number of youths who left school before graduation is not known. It was also unclear how many learners out of the total number of youths from poor families were actually able to attain the graduation qualification. Moreover, it is possible to understand “overcoming difficulties” as meaning “escaping from poverty and upward movement,” but it is still not clear to what extent academic achievement is actually effective for social mobility. To clarify these points it will be required to carry out an analysis and examination using data for social stratification, but sufficient data to allow an analysis of this kind does not yet exist. Looking at individual cases is vital for understanding contexts, but it would seem that it will be necessary to make some effort to carry out empirical research by collating and using quantitative data, especially data for social stratification.



Doctoral Program, Department of Advanced Social and International Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo