'What could be wrong with a school system that had just surpassed all expectations in Pisa?'

Vietnam surprised the education world when it was ranked 17 among 65 countries by Pisa. But now its education system is being dramatically reformed – in ways that England's teachers might recognise

Clive Dimmock

News article image

In 2012, Vietnam surprised the education world, and itself, by achieving a ranking of 17th among 65 nations participating in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It was the first time Vietnam had entered Pisa. As a developing country in South East Asia, it was not expected to outperform England, the US, Norway and Sweden. And yet, Vietnam’s 15-year-olds did better than their English peers in maths, science and reading.

No one was surprised that the top seven places in the Pisa 2012 rankings were occupied by Asian systems – namely Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao and Japan. These are all relatively prosperous, developed countries. On the other hand, Vietnam, with a population of nearly 100 million, has significant poverty and its education system is starved of resources.

Against this picture of Vietnam’s international achievement, it was just as surprising that, at about the same time as the Pisa results were published, the government announced a programme of “radical and comprehensive educational renovation” to its schools. It decided that nothing less than wholesale change to the curriculum and textbooks, pedagogy, assessment, teacher CPD, and leadership and management was required. But what could be wrong with a school system that had just surpassed all expectations in Pisa?

Changes thrust upon them

Vietnam’s leaders were astute in realising what Pisa does and does not measure. The country’s traditional, didactic teaching methods, excellent textbooks that are strictly adhered to by teachers and students, rote memorisation and testing – all align with requirements for Pisa success. These fail, however, to prepare and develop a future workforce equipped with the understanding and skills demanded of a 21st-century knowledge-based economy that is globally competitive.

In Vietnam, as in England, the reforms are multiple, simultaneous and likely to continue for a decade or more. Moreover, so far there is little indication of extra government resources for schools to help them cope with the challenges of implementation – a scenario that will be all-too-familiar to TES readers.

Despite the differences between England and Vietnam – not least the latter’s top-down Communist regime – there are extraordinary similarities. Teachers there claim that they have not been given a clear rationale for the reforms and do not appreciate the nature and extent of the changes being thrust upon them.

One consequence of the inadequate top-down communication is that teachers are ambivalent about the new professional knowledge and skills they need, therefore they don’t realise what they require in terms of CPD. Does that sound familiar?

This is an edited article from the 24 June edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Clive Dimmock

Latest stories