The international school industry in Vietnam is booming, giving parents a wide array of choices when it comes to deciding where to send their kids. Fortunately there are plenty of quality schools to choose from, but there are also many that leave much to be desired. Chris Mueller and Michael Tatarski talk to some of the leading figures in HCM City’s international school business about the industry, as well as some expat parents about what makes a good school and how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Photos by Fred Wissink.

Moving your family to a new country comes with its inherent set of difficulties. Probably at the forefront of most expatriate parents’ minds is how or if their children will receive a quality education in their new home. Fortunately for expats in Vietnam there is no shortage of international schools. In fact, local and expat demand is causing the industry here to boom and international schools are cropping up everywhere.  Some of these provide world-class education with, of course, world-class tuition prices. Others offer little more than a place to drop your kids off during the day and a building with the words ‘international school’ tacked on.

In recent years, as a nascent Vietnamese middle class has appeared thanks to the country’s rapid economic growth, the number of local children in the international school system has also risen. Many Vietnamese parents want their children to be exposed to international cultures and ways of thinking so they can have the chance to study abroad or get high-paying jobs, and that is not something the Vietnamese education system can yet provide.

This explosion of international schools has left many wondering if quality is being sacrificed to meet demand and how Vietnam’s international schools compare to the rest of the world.

A shifting market
Like nearly every other business sector, international schools have been impacted by the global economic crisis. Multinational corporations have less money to spend on sending employees and their families abroad on assignments, so they are instead choosing to send people without children to overseas offices. When they do send a family, corporations are now less willing to pay for the education of their employee’s children, forcing many parents to pay the lofty school fees themselves. Some companies are also focusing on hiring in-country talent instead of flying in foreigners.

There has been so much interest from Vietnamese clientele that BIS has opened a new school called the British Vietnamese International School (BVIS), which is tailored to the local market. At BVIS students are taught by both Vietnamese teachers and native English speakers, although all teachers are trained in the same methodologies as those at BIS. This allows students to maintain their Vietnamese while hopefully becoming fluent in English, and they still take the same exams and have access to the same overseas universities that BIS offers its students. If this market shift deepens in the future, it is entirely likely that more schools like BVIS will be created.

One potential pitfall to increasing local admissions is that many Vietnamese parents want  their children to be in a truly international environment and don’t want them to study with too many other Vietnamese students.

In order to stem the concerns of parents, many schools implement nationality caps. At International School Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC), one of the longest running international schools in Saigon, the nationality caps have been set at 25 percent, says Brian Rogove, the Asia Pacific CEO of Cognita, which owns ISHCMC. Right now ISHCMC’s student body is made up of about 20 percent Vietnamese, 19 percent Koreans, 16 percent Americans, eight to 10 percent Australians and smaller percentages of other nationalities.

Another way to lessen the worries of Vietnamese parents is by offering very high-quality schools with professional teachers. Once parents see the quality of education at upper echelon schools, they tend to care less about what nationalities are at the school, says Rogove. Foreign teachers with education degrees teach all of the classes, and many of these schools have an English only policy where all curriculum is delivered in English and students are required to speak English in all school activities.

Peter O’Sullivan, the principal of Australian International School (AIS) – which is owned by Academic Colleges Group (ACG) – says increasing local demand has not changed the quality of the education at the higher end schools. “It doesn’t matter if you are born in Vietnam or if you come from another country, the expectations from the parents are very similar now.”

O’Sullivan also says that a larger Vietnamese student body adds an interesting and productive “flavour” to the school environment.

“The discipline and the attitude of the students within Vietnam is far more pleasant and far more appropriate. The Vietnamese culture has a strong influence on how the other nationalities interact and mix,” he says. O’Sullivan adds that strong family values and an emphasis on education in many Vietnamese families pushes local students to work hard, in turn causing students of other nationalities to follow that lead.

With the obvious advantages, from both a business and educational standpoint, of enrolling more Vietnamese in international schools most schools are looking to develop the local market.

Although ISHCMC’s reputation as one of the foremost international schools in Saigon has kept enrollment steady, they too are looking to the Vietnamese market for more students, says Rogove.

“I think for us, Vietnam is the most interesting market in all of Asia,” he says. “If you look at the aspirations of the Vietnamese growing middle class, the local Vietnamese market is being short changed with the quality of schools. There is a big gap and hopefully we can participate in raising the standards of education in Vietnam.”

Other countries in the region are also seeing a growing international school industry driven by local demand. In Hong Kong, for example, the local market makes up most of the industry, says Rogove. He says there, 65 percent of the students at international schools are locals. Singapore and Thailand, and more recently Kuala Lampur, have also lifted quotas that had previously limited the number of local students who could enroll.

In Vietnam, however, Vietnamese students need special permission to attend international schools. The schools are also required to offer the Vietnamese national curriculum in their programs for the Vietnamese students, says O’Sullivan.

Fortunately the Vietnamese government seems to understand that international schools can provide Vietnamese students with the quality education that could help push the country forward and have supported the development of most schools.

Question of quality
Like many successful industries in Vietnam, the international school sector is being flooded with lower quality schools that are popping up simply to make money. Many of these schools tend to not hire properly trained teachers or provide quality facilities for students.

“Everyone and their mother wants to be in international schools,” says Rogove. “In a way that’s good for customers because that gives them more choice. But because there are a great many schools the majority of them aren’t high quality.”

Rogove says that in order to make sure parents are sending their children to a quality school and not wasting their money, one of the most important things to keep in mind is who is running the school. He says meeting the head of the school should be done before a decision is made. If the head is always too busy to meet parents, that could be a red flag for a poorly run school. He also says the parents should understand exactly what curriculum is being taught and how the school measures up to international standards.

O’Sullivan also says it is important to have a clear understanding of what the curriculum is before making a decision, in addition to whether a school has any partnerships or programs with quality universities that their children could move on to.

Schools like ISHCMC, BIS and AIS are very expensive, and despite increased competition the prices have not really changed. Since higher quality schools offer careers rather than temporary job placements they have not had much trouble recruiting quality teachers, but they do cost more to employ. “If you want to maintain a high-quality school then you have to pay your teachers well,” he says.

Hiring at AIS has also not been affected by increased competition since Vietnam is still on the radar of a lot of international teachers as a destination for both work and a cultural experience, says O’Sullivan.

The parent perspective
Expat families in Saigon don’t have much of a choice when it comes to deciding on whether to send their children to an international school. Margo Aluwihare, head of the BIS Primary school Parent Teacher Group, has three kids attending the school. She says sending her children to a quality international school was a way to ensure they did not fall behind their classmates back home.

“You want them to keep up with the mainstream and maintain continuity, so if you get posted somewhere else or go back home they won’t be behind,” Aluwihare says. Vietnamese schools can’t offer that continuity, although she notes that if there was a national education system conducted in English that offered international-level classes a lot of parents would possibly opt for that, especially if they are paying their own school fees.

Aluwihare says that many of the challenges associated with sending children to international schools stem from the realities of life as an expat, where people come and go on a regular basis and social circles can change quickly. With many families here on two- or three-year rotations it can be difficult for children to form deep friendships at school.

Two other BIS parents shared that it can be a challenge to find a proper balance between children absorbing the cultural experience of living in Vietnam while maintaining the courses and extracurricular activities they were used to in their home country. They added, however, that international schools here are constantly updating their programs, so this may be less of an issue in the future.

Although changing to an international school from their old schools back home can be difficult for children, many parents here feel they are actually getting a better education.

Evelyne Kobberger and her husband send their three boys to AIS, where she says they are getting a better education at an earlier age and faster pace than back home. “The kids learn more,” she says. “The information they get … is immense.”

Overall, parents seem pleased with the fact that their children are able to attend an international school. One of the main benefits children at such schools receive is the ability to become a global citizen as they interact with classmates from around the world on a daily basis. While international schools may not have everything children are used to from their home country, they do offer experiences and opportunities that can’t be matched.