1. Vietnam's Early Childhood Education System
A new education law regulating the basic framework of the education system was established in Vietnam in 2005. According to the new law, early childhood education covers "infants from the age of three months to six years." The law also clearly regulates the aim of early childhood education as preparatory education for primary school: "The objectives of early childhood education are to help children develop physically, emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically, in order to shape the initial elements of personality as well as to prepare children for the first grade.". Furthermore, the law states that, "The content of early childhood education must be suited to the psycho-physiological development of children, balanced between nurturing, caring and educating, with a view to helping children develop a harmonious, healthy, and active body; know how to respect, love and regard grandparents, parents, teachers, and elderly persons; form attachments to brothers, sisters, and friends; be frank, forthright, natural, aesthetically sensitive and intellectually inquisitive." In addition, the law states that, "The main method in early childhood education is to help children develop comprehensively through organizing play activities while giving special attention to providing models, collective instruction, and encouragement."
2. Three Types of Early Childhood Education Facility under the Centralized Administration of Early Childhood Education
Three types of institutions implement early childhood education in Vietnam: 1) Nurseries (childcare for infants from the age of three months up to three years), 2) Kindergartens (childcare for infants from the age of three years up to six years), and 3) Pre-primary schools (incorporating the functions of both the nursery and the kindergarten, childcare for infants from the age of three months up to the age of six years). Nurseries and kindergartens are differentiated by the age of children under their care. Nurseries basically provide childcare for infants up to the age of three, while kindergartens provide childcare for infants from the age of three upwards. In contrast to Japan, where day-care centers, are distinguished from kindergartens by catering to children who lack care at home," Vietnam distinguishes between nurseries and kindergartens by the age of children. What is characteristic of the system in Vietnam is the existence of pre-primary schools, which combine the functions of the nursery and the kindergarten. Pre-primary schools provide childcare for infants from the age of three months up to the age of six years, but this does not mean that all pre-primary schools provide care for infants of these ages, the age-range of infants for whom care is provided depending on each individual school. In Vietnam, all of these three types of early childhood educational facilities are under the supervision of the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), and in that sense it is fair to say that the administration of early childhood education facilities is centralized. Since the notion of central control of the administration of early childhood education has advanced during at a time when early childhood education was not yet widespread, centralized administration has become established with relatively little confusion.
3. Current State and Diffusion of Early Childhood Education
The diffusion rate of early childhood education in Vietnam is high in comparison with neighboring Southeast Asian countries. Vietnam has achieved very high enrollment ratios not only in early childhood education but also in primary education, the literacy rate being extremely high in comparison with other countries at approximately the same economic level. This is attributed to a general enthusiasm about education among Vietnamese people and a cultural tradition that emphasizes education and schools.
According to MOET data for 2004, the enrollment ratios for early childhood education by age are 16% for infants under three years of age, 62.6% for infants of three and four years of age, 92.0% for children of five years of age, and 93.4% for six-year-olds (the first year of primary school). Thus, at least with respect to children of five years of age, the enrollment ratio is almost the same as that for the first year of primary school, and virtually all children of this age attend some form of early childhood education facility. This is because the age of five is considered in Vietnam to be a year of preparation for primary school, and many parents have their children undergo early childhood education at this age.
On the other hand, kindergarten enrollment ratios for children under three is low. The labor force participation rate for women is high in Vietnam and some mechanism for the provision of childcare for small children by some means other than the mother is indispensible, but how is this carried out? Firstly, in general, the co-residence of three or more generations is widely seen in Vietnam and it is usually possible for the grandparents to take care of small children. If this is not possible, "family group" childcare is also generally available. The "family group" is a mechanism for childcare carried out through the cooperation of neighboring families and is a privately-operated children's day-care center organized separately from the institutionalized early childhood education facilities mentioned above. No special qualifications are necessary for the establishment of a "family group," and many of them appear to be initiated by relatively older women who have child-raising experience. Some communities require that the family group receive guidance from a pre-primary school. There are also some local authorities that make subsidies available for "family groups."
Nearly all teachers working at early childhood education facilities are women, and the necessary qualifications stipulated by the state are high school graduation plus a further two years of training and education. The qualification standards are the same for nurseries, kindergartens and pre-primary schools. Whereas in the past many unqualified teachers were employed in such facilities, in recent years more than 70% of teachers in nurseries and more than 90% of teachers in kindergartens are qualified. The content of childcare was revised in 2003, and is now focused on play with guidance for health and basic life activities for infants under three years of age, and for three- to five-year-olds learning through play and learning based on themes using materials related to familiar people and environments (oneself and one's family, the kindergarten and the village), and so on. The current task is the introduction of child-centered education. Although these ideals are taught at teacher training schools, in fact teacher-led "classes" are often seen in these education facilities.
4. The Policy of the "Socialization" of Education
The policy of the "socialization of education" has been promoted in recent years. This policy is based on the idea that education should be supported by the whole of society and that educational expenses should be borne by various parties besides the central government. The "socialization of education" was also clearly set out in the education law of 2005, which states that, "To develop education and to build a learning society are the responsibilities of the State and of the whole population. The State shall play the dominant role in developing the mission of education; carry out the diversification of schooling types and modes of education; encourage, promote and facilitate organizations and individuals to take part in the development of the mission of education. It is the responsibility of all organizations, families and citizens to take care of education, to cooperate with schools in realizing the goals of education, and to build a sound and safe educational environment." The concrete forms of the socialization of education, among others, are 1) diversification of funding for education, 2) diversification of the forms of school establishment (the privatization of education), and 3) promotion of educational activity projects by non-governmental actors such as enterprises, and community organizations.
Early childhood education has also been strongly influenced by the "socialization of education" policy. The government is also encouraging the establishment of forms of non-public early childhood education facilities, and the establishment of early childhood education facilities by community organizations and enterprises is progressing. The number of infants enrolled at non-public early childhood education facilities is also rising, and according to the latest (FY 2006-2007) data, 75.0% of infants attending nurseries and 53.7% of attending kindergartens are enrolled in non-public facilities (enrollment ratios at non-public facilities in FY 1999-2000 was 65.6% for nurseries and 51.1% for kindergartens). The establishment of the "family groups" mentioned above also has aspects of spontaneous nursery organization by local citizens, but is said to be strongly influenced by the "socialization of education" movement. In many cases, it is the local citizens' organization known as the Women's Union that plays the main role in the establishment and operation of the "family groups."
The awareness that "the bringing up and educating of children is borne by the whole of society" has permeated deeply into the minds of Vietnamese people. I was once asked by a Vietnamese person who experienced child upbringing in Japan, "Why don't Japanese people cooperate with their neighbors in the upbringing of children?" As mentioned above, there is neighborhood support for child upbringing, as in the case of "family groups," and in recent years, the awareness that child upbringing and education is supported by the whole of society has become firmly entrenched with the policy of the socialization of education. Before the appearance of the "socialization of education" policy, child upbringing by the local community was the norm in rural areas. Compared to Japan, where child upbringing and early childhood education have become "personalized," there is a strong awareness in Vietnam that local citizens collaborate to support the education of children. According to the Vietnamese person who asked the above question, based on her experience of bringing up children in Japan, the situation in Japan "felt strange" since "you can't leave your child with someone in the neighborhood even to do a simple thing like go to the shops."
5. Possibility of Widening Disparities and Policies to Resolve Disparities
It should not be overlooked that the "socialization of education" has both positive and negative aspects. The notion of "child upbringing by society as a whole" may sound nice, but in fact there are large regional differences in local citizen awareness and in the extent of positive attitudes towards such activities. The promotion of participation in education by local citizens means that the "caliber" of local citizens becomes directly linked to educational disparity. It cannot be denied that there is a possibility that educational disparities between "regions where educational awareness and the ability to bear the economic costs are high" and "regions where these are low" will expand as the "socialization of education" progresses. In the first place, Vietnam is a very diverse state in terms of both geography and ethnicity, and it is easy to see how regional educational disparities could be extremely large just from these initial conditions. In addition, with the growing establishment of non-public educational facilities, private kindergartens charging high childcare fees and teaching such subjects as computer skills and foreign languages are increasing in the urban areas. In the meantime, in mountainous and rural areas, there are many communities where early childhood education facilities simply do not exist (and even if they did it would be impossible for the children to attend them).
The Vietnamese government is also attempting to formulate countermeasures aimed at reducing these disparities. The early childhood education policy announced in 2002, for example, states that, "Communities with socio-economic difficulties as well as mountain and island communities should be given high priority, and childcare fees should not be levied," "The establishment of public early childhood education facilities should be concentrated mainly in communities which are facing difficulties, and the establishment of non-public facilities and the privatization of public facilities should be carried out in urban and economically developed areas," "In communities facing difficulties, public facilities should form the base and teachers will be employed by the government," and so on, showing that the alleviation of disparities is being attempted by the adoption of preferential treatment policies for disadvantaged communities. It appears that the issue for the future is how early childhood education in Vietnam can effectively combine and promote "socialization of education" and the "reduction of disparity" in the future.