For decades, the focus has been on improving facilities and increasing the numbers of children attending school. In Vietnam, well over 90% of young children are now enrolled in primary education and literacy rates among young people (aged 15-24 years) are running at over 96%.
However, as educational results improve for the vast majority, Vietnam is beginning to focus on communities where achievement is still low. This is particularly the case for the country’s ethnic minorities, who constitute around 11 million of Vietnam’s 88 million people. There are over 50 minority ethnic groups and they remain among the country’s poorest people. Though they account for around 13% of the population, these groups represent 44% of the country’s poor.
A new report by IRIN highlights how one programme in Vietnam is focusing on improving education among one of these ethnic groups, the Mong. School teachers across the country teach in Vietnamese, the language of the majority Kinh people. However, in Vietnam’s northern hills, many families have Mong as their mother-tongue. This means that when young children from Mong-speaking families first go to school, they understand very little of what’s being said to them. This lack of understanding often leads to low attainment and many children drop out of school, helping their families with work or earn a living selling on the streets.
Recent educational research studies have highlighted how children learn only what they can understand. So when faced with a different language to their own, young children often struggle to adapt and learn in a country’s official language. Most experts now agree that young children should first be taught to read and write in a language they understand. The country’s official language can then be introduced at a later stage and become the classroom language. Where this doesn’t happen, studies have shown that basic education is not effective and language difficulties result in higher dropout and repeat-year rates. This has certainly been the case in Vietnam, where according to UNICEF, three out of every five ethnic minority children complete primary education compared to four out of every five Kinh-speakers.
In the Lao Cai province of northern Vietnam, local primary schools have therefore introduced the Mong language into their classrooms and the province is training 100 ethnic minority teachers each year for pre-school and primary school education. This move is making learning more accessible to ethnic minority children. A teacher at one school told IRIN that whereas before, some of her young children only understood a portion of what was being said, now they “understand 100%” and “stand up and answer any question”. She summed up the situation by saying “the children are much happier and they really enjoy school”, surely key factors in ensuring children fulfil their educational potential.