Frances Rickford on moves to rescue a system that once achieved 88 per cent adult literacy.
Decorating the entrance of a primary school in Hanoi is a huge display of children's artwork celebrating the 63rd birthday of the Vietnamese Communist party. Their work testifies to the fact that, despite Vietnam's rapid transformation from a centrally-controlled economy to a market system, the rhetoric of socialism still rules in the classroom.
However, the achievements of late president Ho Chi Minh's determined campaign for universal basic education are now in danger. Vietnam is searching for a way to stem a slump in school enrolments which, if it continues, will quickly undermine the country's impressive record of 88 per cent adult literacy.
The proportion of Vietnamese children attending both primary and secondary school has been falling year by year and there are now estimated to be 2.2 million children between six and 14 who have either never been to school or left soon after starting.
At secondary level, there has been a 20 per cent fall in enrolments in the past six years although the population increased by more than 14 per cent during that time. The decline has been caused by a combination of underfunding and families' growing reliance on their children to contribute to household income by working.
The rapid economic reform which has been taking place since the mid-1980s has meant major cuts in public spending. Although primary education is compulsory and is still supposed to be free, charges have been introduced for everything from school books to classroom repairs. These have now reached an average of US$8 per child a year, or 5 per cent of the total budget - a considerable sum in a country with a gross domestic product of less than Pounds 125 per head.
Lower secondary school expenses have reached Pounds 12.50 and upper secondary education costs families nearly Pounds 50 a year per child, putting it out of reach of 78 per cent of the population.
While charges have increased, quality has fallen. There is a massive shortage of teachers, estimated at nearly 53,000 last year, which is worst in the poorest rural areas.
Teachers' salaries about Pounds 15 a month have halved in real terms over the past decade and many are leaving public education to teach privately. Those that do still work in the state system moonlight extensively.
Better-off people pay privately for extra classes, often in the school building, from the same staff who teach their children on behalf of the state.
Local schools are not big enough to accommodate the rapidly growing school-aged population and many are dilapidated. Most primary schools now operate a shift system so that children get only two or three hours publicly-funded teaching a day in classes of about 50. Few schools have playgrounds or proper toilets.
The government has responded to the fall in enrolments by setting up special schools and classes for children who haven't attended school, and by trying to persuade families, especially in rural areas, not to put their children to work on the family farm.
International charities including Oxfam and Save the Children are also supporting projects to improve the access and appeal of school to disadvantaged families, especially members of Vietnam's 53 ethnic-minority groups, and the World Bank has made a low-interest loan to Vietnam to improve primary schools.
Typical of the initiatives aimed at tackling the threatened growth in illiteracy is the June 1 School in one of the poorest districts of Ho Chi Minh City. The school was set up by the local people's committee - the municipal authority - in 1990 and teaches basic literacy, numeracy and vocational skills to about 300 children aged eight to 15. The school makes no charges, and allows the children to attend when they can to fit in with their need to earn money.
According to headteacher Nguyon Thi Dong, most of the children make a living by collecting scrap from the local refuse tip and selling it, or selling lottery tickets on the street. She said: "These children have never been to regular school because their families cannot afford to support them, and we know that there are at least as many locally who have never been here either. If we don't find ways of helping them now, it is going to be a big problem for us later."