Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap
Vietnam’s International schools and the education sector are getting a lot of attention recently as they focus on raising the bar and closing the gap. Or, should we say, entering the market and capturing as much market share as possible. Decree 86 came into effect on 1 August, 2018 to allow international schools in Vietnam to have 50% of their enrolments made up of domestic students. Since that time there has been a lot of positive activity in the sector. New schools, new acquisitions and expansions.The government is keen on attracting more foreign direct investment and expanding educational opportunities for its young people. An expanding middle class and increase in expatriates to support new and expanding industries is driving the demand. But how will they go about raising the standard and closing the gap?
Is Success a Certainty?
Just because opportunity meets potential, it does not automatically mean you will achieve success. With education, like all industries, it is quality and a clear long term strategy that makes the difference. Market demands and expectations must be met for more than just a minute. A common trend in new markets is that new schools expand rapidly and profits are high for the new players, but bubbles burst quickly when quality is not sustained. Parents will sign up quickly based on a new trend but over time they will begin to discriminate in a market that over time will become more and more sophisticated. There are already many examples of disenchanted parents who enrolled their child in an “international school” that looked promising but now they are seeking refunds and looking for exit plans. The school did not meet expectations. Only the good will survive. The key question is who will and who wont?
Michael Fullan first said it and we keep sharing the same advice during our recent visits to Vietnam. Who is raising the bar and closing the gap?
“Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap”
International schools must deliver on high standards.That is a difficult task for business leaders or education leaders who don’t understand international education perspectives. “They don’t know what they don’t know.” Knowing what to look for and knowing what behaviours represent good practice requires specialist insight. Employing foreigners may assist but in some cases it might just be window dressing. “How we teach”, what we care about, value and where our energy is focussed is a “whole of school culture” and school climate matter. The demand for new schools in Vietnam is quite incredible but the gap between what might be offered and what other countries consider an appropriate international standard might be a challenge for some time. The definition of “international school” is sadly quite varied. We have seen first hand in our visits to schools that it can mean anything from 1-2 foreign teachers and a few textbooks through to a fully comprehensive and accredited international school. Integrity will prevail and schools need to deliver completely on their plan and promises. It is certainly more than just a curriculum and the teaching of english by foreigners.
Pedagogy – Teaching and Learning Strategies
High quality schooling means best practice teaching and learning in classrooms, led by strong, experienced educational leaders. These teachers need to be led by experienced educators and unfortunately there is a shortage of experienced school leaders who understand best practice and know how to deliver it. When international schools are launched in new and developing markets or countries such as Vietnam, the curriculum and leadership needs to be adapted for the local context. National curriculums of the UK, Australia and America were not designed to meet the needs of students in unique cultural contexts without some level of adaptation by leaders and teachers. Operationalising the international curriculums of these countries is also not just a case of issuing textbooks. It is not the curriculum that drives quality, it is the leadership and teacher delivery that makes a difference.
Recruiting and Retaining Good Expatriate Staff
We need to implement effective management systems so that schools actually deliver the standards international schools strive for. We all know that good Principalship is a key factor but with inevitable high teacher turn over that happens in overseas schools, staying ahead of the game is difficult. Cultural obstacles between management and staff can be a huge challenge. We are not talking about food, language or fashion either. We are referring to cultural norms, interpersonal behaviours and workplace practices that may be foreign or different to other cultures. It is common for high turnover in many schools of new and emerging markets such as Vietnam. Education is not the only industry to face this challenge. Medical and other industries are struggling to secure talent as well as keep good expatriate staff. We see it in other countries such as China, described by expats as challenging posts with average tenures below the norm of other locations. Will higher salaries fix the problem? Sort of… Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory should remind us that money alone will not satisfy people. The average salaries in Vietnam are low but people stay, or leave, for reasons other than salary. Good management finds and then keeps good staff.
Tuition Price Points – Closing the Gap
A quick glance at tuition fees across the range of schools available can certainly be confusing to say the least. As a rough guide, parents and teachers should understand that the most expensive part of a school budget is human resources. Consequently, tuition fees should directly reflect the quality of teachers in the school. Whether schools are struggling to recruit quality teachers, or whether they are too aggressive on profit is hard to determine but generally speaking, the salaries for expatriate teachers, across the board are very low in Vietnam, other than in the tier one schools. “You get what you pay for” in a market where recruiting teachers is very competitive. Schools will not recruit and retain great teachers with salaries that are too low and well below the average of other countries. It may be true that some business plans are too aggressive at the expense of investing in their most valuable resource. Teachers are the quality tool and resource that make a school great, or substandard. There are schools in Ho Chi Minh City charging upwards of $20,000USD/year for students but employing teachers who are not fully qualified by international standards and consequently they attract only marginal salaries. Those schools will not survive long term. Raising the bar and closing the gap is no where less evident than it is for tuition fees verse quality education.
High quality schooling does not necessarily mean “well known brand” or “beautiful facilities”. Increasing the quality of facilities will help, but designing them badly can be a problem. Facility design must match the curriculum as well as the pedagogy or teaching and learning strategies set to be deployed. Copying the facade of schools in other countries can be just that; a facade. Window dressing quickly gets undone when the teaching and learning is not of appropriate standard. Many schools are certainly improving their quality of facilities but in terms of investment should this really be the number one priority? Is there a balance?
What are Children like in Vietnam?
Vietnam outperforms neighbouring countries in south-east Asia on education rankings, and does well globally too. Its high test scores contributed to its place in the World Bank human capital index — 48th — the highest rating for any lower middle-income country. It stands out relative to its wealth. There is little doubt that Vietnam’s education system is good at teaching children to do well on tests, especially in maths and science. But is it teaching them to think and reason too? And how reliable are the test scores themselves? Generally speaking, it is the richer, higher achieving students who do the PISA test. The PISA also tests content and knowledge, not aptitude to succeed in a global world. That is the true brief of international schools, not test results alone. International school environments are designed to foster international-mindedness. Understanding, respecting and valuing different cultures, embracing diversity and knowing that different perspectives have a great deal to offer. Critical thinking, service leadership and global awareness is not reflected in such tests.
Leadership – Raising the Bar
Truth be told, there is a shortage of good educational leaders world wide. Ask any of the big recruitment agencies and they will also attest to this. If you add layers of developing country, cultural differences, for-profit owners not experienced in the industry and unique lifestyle factors, Vietnam will continue to face challenges for a while. It is a ripe ground for new and emerging leaders, however. A great place to pioneer and prove worth but theories and practices for leadership of “sink or swim” are risky for school operators. A survey of global annual gross salaries in 2017-2018 for International School Heads showed 169,284 USD; their annual net salary is 134,653 USD. (CIS Survey) Most Heads of schools do not earn salaries anywhere near that average in Vietnam. It will be a challenge in raising the bar and closing the gap if those at the helm are not strong, experienced and well qualified.
Where to from here?
The strong will survive and the weak will fail. What does that mean? The schools that truly embrace the “long game” and understand that long term and sustainable education quality will deliver outcomes, including profit, are the ones that will make it. Having spent nearly 10 years in China, from 2010, and many years in the Middle East, we saw it all too often. A bright and promising year one or two but then a plateau or a nose dive in enrolments. Cost cutting or a lack of investment in the right areas. Cultural disconnects between management and expatriate staff. Overly aggressive business models. A lack of understanding about international education. Short term thinking rather than well informed long term vision. That is what brings schools undone. There are some highly professional and competent groups in Vietnam and we all know who they are. Organisations like Cognita, Nord Anglia and others know where their priorities should lie and they work hard to deliver a strategy rather than just an aggressive market reach. They understand international education.
The opportunities in Vietnam are immense but so are the large pot holes in a road to success. Tread carefully and plan thoughtfully.
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