Things to consider when choosing a school for your child 

Text by Michael Arnold

Images by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

So imagine you’ve had this fantastic opportunity. An opening has come up in Vietnam, the salary is everything you’ve been waiting for, and your whole family’s invited to go with you – on the company account. To top it all off, your kids are going to have access to the finest  international education Vietnam has to offer – and all you need to do is pick the school.

As a parent, how do you make that decision? Fifteen years ago there might have been a handful of options, but with the local economy accelerating over the years – and as more expat families keep stepping off the planes – the Ho Chi Minh City schools market has truly taken off.

The decision to let your kids be educated in Vietnam involves multiple considerations, from the distance to your home to where you hope your six-year-old will be attending university come 2025. We speak to five families to find out how they made their choices.

The Kazzi Family

For Cindy Kazzi, it all happened when her husband was offered the role as Country Manager for Baxter Healthcare here back in September 2012. “I started researching schools immediately,” she says. “I also had the children doing research so that they’d have some input into our final decision. Our children love sport, and came from a great school that offered many sporting activities, so this was an important factor.”

The family eventually settled on the British International School. “We were also interested in BIS being an international baccalaureate school, as this will benefit the children later. It’s more than likely that our kids will go to university in Australia, but doing the IB should open more opportunities for them in other countries.”

The Kazzis were sure to see the schools for themselves before making their final decision, and firmly believe that making a school visit is an essential step in the process. “We visited the three schools that we had narrowed down to,” she says, “and BIS was definitely a standout for us and was the school preferred by the children. We were very impressed with the facilities, the grounds, the staff, and the fact that there were so many different nationalities of children at the school.”

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The Taylor Family

For New Zealanders Rebecca and Brook Taylor, deciding on an international school was nothing new. “Our children have only ever lived in Asia,” says Rebecca. “Emily (now 12) attended preschool in Bangkok, kindergarten at UNIS in Hanoi, and did the rest of her schooling in HCMC. Ben (10) went to UNIS for preschool, but the rest of the boys’ schooling has been at International School Ho Chi Minh City. Nathan (6) started school at two.”

“Our children started school early because there was little else for them to do back then – no playgrounds or gyms. Now there’s a lot more choice with Kindermusik, swim classes, SNAP Café, and even a Little Gym has just opened. However I don’t regret that decision, as going to school early gave them a chance to socialize.”

The IB program offered at ISHCMC was a major drawcard for the Taylors. “It’s important to us that our children are educated in English to a standard that will enable them to go on to further education, so international schooling is essential. With an IB diploma they can go to a university of their choice, whether that’s in North America, the UK, Asia, or in NZ. We also want them to learn a second world language.”

“Our children understand that they are more fortunate than many in Vietnam. ISHCMC kids are taught to reach out and support those less fortunate through different actions at school. They fundraise, visit schools and orphanages, teach English, and even help build houses.”

“My best advice about schooling is to make an appointment and meet the admissions people,” says Rebecca. Look around the schools, ask questions, and also ask people you know what they like or dislike. Work out what you want in a school. I know it’s hard to know how a two-year-old will develop, but if you like creative arts or sports then make sure there’s a program to match.”

Not everyone, of course, has the luxury of having their kid’s education covered in an expat salary package. “School fees are expensive,” says Rebecca. “It’s something you have to weigh up. Why are you here? The cost of fees has to be included in that decision along with the cost of living, the benefits of an international upbringing, and career opportunities as well. Education is important to us, and this is part of the cost of being here.”

The Foster Family

For American resident Jennifer Foster, there were no issues with transitioning to a new school system – her son Tai Foster-Knappe (7) was born here, and she’s lived here almost 10 years herself. As a long-term expat, she was already well-aware of what was available on the local education market and knew very well what fellow parents were saying about them.

“I felt confident in the international schools available, as they had good reputations, are accredited, and have good teachers,” she says. “Tai attended preschool in Saigon, and then went to kindergarten in America. He has now attended AIS for both year 1 and 2.”

Even with a degree of insider knowledge, it took a good deal of research before Jennifer made the final decision. “I researched online and checked out the different curricula, whether it be the British Cambridge, the IB system, American, etc. The price is also very important, but most of the main international schools have similar prices. Accreditation is important, and particularly relevant when it comes time to apply for university. Location wasn’t a deciding factor for me, as all the schools have buses that go all over the city.”

“I visited several schools prior to enrolling Tai in year 1. While I felt he would get a good education at any of them, the deciding factor was the feeling I got from the visit. The AIS primary campus is small and personal, which I appreciated for a younger child. There is a very personal feeling at AIS, like a big family, just a very happy, warm environment. With two years’ experience there now, I can say I really love the teachers and staff, and the PYP system is wonderful.”

“I do think it’s important to be involved in Vietnamese culture, and AIS has a class where the students learn about the Vietnamese language and culture,” continues Jennifer. “For parents of prospective students, my advice would be to visit the schools, talk to the teachers and just get a feel for the environment. It’s best to check out the schools well in advance, as some may not have many spaces available, and some require entrance exams.”

The Holdsworth Family

Superior schooling options were amongst the chief reasons that brought British expat Peter Holdsworth and his family to Ho Chi Minh City after 15 years in Hanoi. What makes their family unique is the fact that the children attend different schools.

“When I decided to move to Saigon two years ago,” he says. “I had to make the decision based on my two daughters’ education. I was recommended a school for Lucy (13), but Jasmine (7) was a little more difficult, even though she’s younger. I wanted to find a school for her that she felt at home in.”

“I checked out about six schools and visited them all. I came across Saigon Star on the internet and arranged a visit – I had no hesitation when I visited the school, because it had a great family atmosphere and with the class sizes and facilities, I knew my daughter would love it. I’m not disappointed.”

Not covered by company sponsorship, the family absorbs the costs of education on their own. “Sure international schools are expensive, but we try to balance the preferred lifestyle in Vietnam against the obvious costs. My wife and I both work full time and pay the school fees personally.”

The extra legwork for Jasmine’s school paid off, and her parents are very content with their choice. “The most satisfying aspect of the school is the close family atmosphere that they create,” says Peter. “She is so happy there, and when I meet the other parents of her classmates, they all feel the same. For me it is so important that each child has an opportunity to be a big fish, rather than at bigger schools where they are absorbed into the crowd.”

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The Dacio Family

When Manuel and Lyra Dacio moved to Vietnam, their initial reaction to the local school prices was to consider homeschooling. They were fortunate, however, in that Manuel’s company offered to cover the education costs. Still, Lyra took charge of her son Sam’s education from the outset.

“I enrolled him in a play school and homeschooled him a bit on reading from age two till he entered Saigon South International School with the EC-3 (Early Childhood for three-year-olds) program. I think the biggest factor for me was the location. The school had to be near our home where I could easily get to my son in times of emergency or in case he was sick – which proved to be a good decision, because during the early part of his first year, he did get sick quite often.”

One of the most frequently-raised criticisms of the international school system is the potential they have to instill elitist tendencies in young kids – something inappropriate, perhaps, in a country such as this one. I ask Lyra if she has any concerns about the “expat glass bubble.”

“It’s important to us that our son is able to embrace local culture,” she says. “After all, his formative years were practically spent here in Vietnam. In all honesty, Vietnam is my son’s second home and he has actually been more immersed here because of the time we’ve spent here.”

Lyra advises parents to take an active role in the school decision-making process. “Take interest in your children’s education,” she says. “I think the best way to scout for a good school is by also assessing our friends’ children who are attending school. But also keep in mind that no school is perfect and that you just can’t expect your children to become excellent individuals just because of the school they attend – that’s actually on you.”