$450 Million Dollar Plan: Vietnam demands its Non-Native English Teachers have Intermediate English Level

All school leavers will have a minimum level of English by 2020 under ambitious education reforms, but teachers fear that they are not getting the help they need to upgrade their own skills.

Ed Parks
Guardian Weekly,
Tuesday 8 November 2011

Fanfare … English instruction hours are expected to double under the $450m plan. Photograph: Frank Zeller/AFP/Getty Images

More than 80,000 English language teachers in Vietnam’s state schools are expected to be confident, intermediate-level users of English, and to pass a test to prove it, as part of an ambitious initiative by the ministry of education to ensure that all young people leaving school by 2020 have a good grasp of the language.

As part of the strategy, which includes teaching maths in English, officials have adopted the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to measure language competency. Teachers will need to achieve level B2 in English with school leavers expected to reach B1, a level below.

But the initiative is worrying many teachers, who are uncertain about their future if they fail to achieve grades in tests such as Ielts and Toefl.

“All teachers in primary school feel very nervous,” said Nguyen Thi La, 29, an English teacher at Kim Dong Primary School in Hanoi.

“It’s difficult for teachers to pass this exam, especially those in rural provinces. B2 is a high score.”

“All we know is that if we pass we are OK. If we don’t we can still continue teaching, then take another test, then if we fail that, we don’t know.”

Despite reports in state media, the education ministry maintains that no one will be sacked who does not achieve B2, equivalent to scores of between 5.0 and 6.0 in the Ielts test, in the countrywide screening.

“It’s a proficiency test to identify how many teachers need government-funded language training before they can go on teacher training courses,” said Nguyen Ngoc Hung, executive manager of Vietnam’s National Foreign Languages 2020 Project.

“No teachers will be sacked if they are not qualified because we already know most of them are not qualified. No teachers will be left behind and the government will take care of them. But if the teachers don’t want to improve, then parents will reject them because only qualified teachers will be able to run new training programmes.”

Project 2020 will affect 200 million students and 85% the $450m budget will be spent on teacher training, according to the education ministry.

Officials say proficiency equivalent to B2 is necessary so that English teachers can read academic papers, which will contribute to their professional development.

The state media recently reported that in the Mekong Delta’s Ben Tre province, of 700 teachers who had been tested, only 61 reached the required score. In Hue, in central Vietnam, one in five scored B2 or higher when 500 primary and secondary teachers were screened with tests tailored by the British Council.

In the capital, Hanoi, teachers are taking the Ielts test and 18% have so far made the B2 grade. The education ministry said that in one province, which could not be identified, the pass rate is as low as one in 700.

So far testing has been voluntary. Candidates are required to provide certificates from test aligned to the CEFR, such as Ielts, Cambridge Esol exams and Toefl.

Some trainers think that the B2 level need not be an obstacle for many teachers, but they say pay incentives are needed if the government is to retain teachers and find 24,000 more to meet its 2020 education targets.

“B2 is achievable enough. The teachers I know want to improve their English but want their salaries to be higher so that they can have an incentive to try harder to meet the standard,” said Tran Thi Qua, a teacher trainer from the education department in Hue.

Education ministry officials say they are working to increase primary English teacher salaries. Some parents of primary-aged children are prepared to give their children’s English teachers extra money.

“My biggest worry is where and how my children will learn English. There is a huge demand for English teaching at state primary schools. I have to spend lots of time and money now to give my children an English language education,” said Do Thi Loan, a mother of two from Hanoi.

“The government needs to fund courses to help improve the quality of the teachers, and pay them more money, but I think if teachers don’t want to improve, then they should change jobs,” she said.

A new languages-focused curriculum delivered by retrained teachers should be in place in 70% of grade-three classes by 2015, according to ministry plans, and available nationwide by 2019. English teaching hours are set to double and maths will be taught in a foreign language in 30% of high schools in major cities by 2015.

But according to one language development specialist, the education ministry’s goals are unrealistic.

Rebecca Hales, a former senior ELT development manager at British Council Vietnam, said: “The ministry is taking a phased approach, which is commendable, but there are issues with supply and demand. They don’t have the trained primary English teachers. The targets are completely unachievable at the moment.”

According to Hales the British Council has been instrumental in the training 2,000 master trainers, but she doubts that local education authorities are willing to put money into spreading those skills further.

“The teacher trainers we trained up are now at the mercy of the individual education departments. There’s no evidence at this stage of a large-scale teacher training plan,” Hales said.

Nguyen Ngoc Hung asserts that a training strategy is in place, but acknowledges the scale of the project.

“I have invested in universities and colleges from different regions, sent their teachers to the UK and Australia, and turned them into teacher development centres that will reach out to train people in remote provinces,” Nguyen said.

“There are many challenges. We are dealing with everything, from training, salaries and policy, to promotion, how to train [teachers] then keep them in the system. I’m not sure if [Project 2020] will be successful. Other countries have spent billions on English language teaching in the private sector but still governments have been very unhappy with the outcomes.”

* Ed Parks is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Vietnam

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Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He is the Head of the English Department at Colegio Internacional SEK in Santiago, Chile.

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About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He is the Coordinator of the English Department at Colegio Internacional SEK in Santiago, Chile. He is the Co-Founder and Co-Organiser of EdCamp Santiago 2012 & Edcamp Chile 2013, free, participant-driven, democratic, conversation based professional development for teachers, by teachers. EdCamp Santiago 2012 was held at Universidad Mayor in Santiago. Edcamp Chile 2013 was held at Universidad UCINF. Thomas is also a member of the Advisory Board for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL), where he also serves as a reviewer and as the HETL Ambassador for Chile. Thomas enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. Thus far, he has written the following genres: romance, historical fiction, autobiographical, sports history/biography, and English Language Teaching. He has published a total of sixty one (61) books, all available on Amazon http://amzn.to/Qxmoec . The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family, his wife Gabriela, and his son, Thomas Jerome Baker, Jr.
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