RPN 21 published April 1996

7. What's schooling for?

The Vietnamese in the British educational system by Tom Lam and Christopher Martin

Fifteen years ago the Vietnamese boat people came face to face with the alien culture of Britain. The mass media emphasised their disorientation in what was for them an alien culture, following their uprooting from their homes by war and persecution. Now a quarter of the current Vietnamese population speaks English as their first language and the majority of Vietnamese consider themselves to be permanent residents in the UK. Education has been a vital part of this transition. But how have the Vietnamese managed in British schools, colleges and universities? What are the pros and cons of British education; what future do they see it opening for them and what lessons can be learned from the Vietnamese regarding British educational provision?

  • Background
  • The Vietnamese arrived in the UK as refugees from political persecution following the Vietnam War and the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in the late 1970s. The majority of the Vietnamese in the UK are ethnic Chinese and came from North Vietnam. They are a young population, typically in their twenties upon arrival, and mostly rural or urban unskilled or semiskilled workers, with few skills transferable to the UK economy. Although their plight was highlighted in the mass media with dramatic pictures of the 'boat people' and their precarious voyage on the South China Sea, they have disappeared subsequently from the public consciousness. What happened to them? How are they faring now?

    Once in the UK, they were dispersed throughout the country, ostensibly to diffuse the burden of their settlement requirements and to avoid 'ghettoisation'. However the wisdom of fragmenting an already decimated people has been widely questioned (Robinson, 1993 and CareyWood et al., 1995), especially since there was no preexisting community of Vietnamese in Britain a country with which they had no cultural ties. The Vietnamese have responded ingeniously to their dispersion by regrouping themselves in the larger cities, particularly London. In reconcentrating themselves, they have begun to reconstitute themselves as a community, thereby forming interpersonal networks which have been repeatedly recognised as vital for both practical survival and cultural and social well-being.


    If building a 'critical mass' of people into a community in a locality is one of the key ingredients for refugees' resettlement, education is another. Whereas community building consolidates what a group shares, education assists adaptation to the wider society. It does so by inculcating language as well as other communicative skills and by qualifying individuals for employment. For the Vietnamese, as for many of Britain's new minorities, the school or college is the public institution where they have most contact and on which they pin most hope. How have they been faring in the system?

    In the early years Vietnamese resettlement studies showed a high proportion of people unable to speak English, a male bias in formal educational participation and a population whose educational qualifications were generally low. On all these counts, there have been notable changes. The proportion of people admitting they cannot speak any English has dropped from 90% to 14%, although older people are disenchanted about the possibility of improvement, something indicated by the drop in language school attendance by this sector of the population. But the overall picture of English language acquisition is of rapid progress, particularly among women. Females are now attending secondary and higher education in equal proportions to males negating the preexisting male bias.

    Overall, as an increasing proportion of the population has been born and has grown up in this country, so the numbers receiving fulltime British education have also increased. Thus the proportion in fulltime education has doubled between 1983 and now. Although no systematic studies have been published, evidence from SouthEast London Schools researched by the authors indicates that Vietnamese pupils are not lagging behind average performance in the schools in question. Currently 7% of the total population is in higher education, which is about the same for Asians as a whole (Lam and Martin, 1996; see also CareyWood et al., 1995).

    If the Vietnamese are now comparable with the more established, nonrefugee ethnic groups, they share with such groups many of the same obstacles language difficulties, economic problems, sociocultural distance from the school and its values, and discrimination. How do the Vietnamese find the British educational system and how do they cope with it? The information which follows is drawn mainly from the authors' ongoing research project on Vietnamese resettlement and integration at South Bank University (Lam and Martin, 1994 and 1996).

    The Vietnamese perspective on education

    The Vietnamese prize learning and have a broad notion of its value. This is well expressed in the words of one Vietnamese parent, echoed by many: 'It [formal education] is not a simple question of trying to get rich, rather, it is a way for people to acquire something meaningful in their lives. The value of education is in its ability to make your mind active, stretching your imagination and creativity'. Thus, although education is quite clearly recognised as promoting one's economic betterment, it is not confined to this function. Education is more than a gateway to employment, as succinctly expressed in the following quote from a Vietnamese parent: 'wealth may have dried up; but knowledge will stay forever'. For the Vietnamese, education is the means through which cultural norms are transmitted from generation to generation, as well as a source of knowledge. The Vietnamese are more likely to speak of education as a process of spiritual and moral disciplining and purification, than of 'acquiring skills'.

    However, the capacity to earn one's livelihood is not denied. Rather than being seen as the chief purpose of education, it flows from the successful cultivation of spiritual and personal worth. Not only is the latter the foundation for all learning, including functional skills, but spiritual and moral integrity is what guides one in how to make use of one's education in a responsible and effective way. Social responsibility is taught in the school where the child learns to interact with others and make contact with the wider society. But the chief beneficiary of education is the individual. Indeed it is only through the development of the individual's talents, that society can benefit; of necessity society depends on individuals as bearers of needed knowledge, skills and attitudes. The kinbased nature of Vietnamese social organisation means that, after the individual, the family gains most from education. This is easily seen in the way the older generation rely on the young to help them to communicate with the British and understand their way of life. Though in doing so, the traditional agebased hierarchy is put in jeopardy, a source of great anxiety for many Vietnamese.

    Vietnamese assessment of British educational provision

    Such perceptions are the background for an understanding of the Vietnamese response to British educational provision. Opinion is generally favourable. Of course the Vietnamese point of reference is a developing, mainly rural country emerging from years of war and stagnation, rather than an industrialised country like Britain, and so praise of the UK education system needs to be considered with this background in mind. The aspects which receive most praise are the breadth of educational opportunity and the quality of the staff and resources. The chance for all young people to continue their studies until the age of 18, with no financial burden placed on the family, is highly valued, as is the access to specialised vocational and technical training in the currently diverse 1618 year old sector. The older generation are impressed by the variety of adult education on offer and with the whole idea of 'continuing education' on which such provision is based. The Vietnamese are impressed by the schools' equipment, particularly the IT facilities. Also, in general, the standard of teaching is considered good at all levels, including the English classes that the adults have attended. At school level, the teachers' concern for their students is much appreciated. Vietnamese parents would like to participate more in the education of their children, but feel unable to contribute much. In large part the problem is linguistic since the parents, with their still limited knowledge of English, feel illequipped to discuss the details of their children's studies. Often they rely on their children to act as translators, mediating with the teachers, though where the children are the pupils themselves, the result has frequently been unsatisfactory as can be imagined.

    Given the Vietnamese educational philosophy sketched above, it is not surprising that the qualms that most Vietnamese have about British education centre on questions of the values and purposes of education. In fact, the Vietnamese have difficulty in discerning any in British education. It is the lack of values, and not incompatibility with values, which they find disturbing. Thus they find no evidence of moral education in schools, no spiritual development, and very little religious education. They cannot see the virtue of teaching sex education (which to their way of thinking is something too private to be dealt with by a public institution) whilst refusing to teach moral discipline. This seems like encouraging the young into sexual activity prematurely but at the same time denying them the wherewithal, the moral strength, to make mature decisions.

    A similar contradiction, from the Vietnamese perspective, is the much appreciated support for students' learning (personal tutors and other advisory officers in and around the school) yet with woefully inadequate efforts to counteract racism and bullying or to maintain basic security in and around the school. The Vietnamese find it difficult to understand the reticence of teachers to impose their rightful authority in this and other matters. Why do teachers refuse to discipline the children more thoroughly? The teachers seem almost to be afraid of their pupils. Whilst many Vietnamese value the cultivation of 'freedom of thought' and 'free speech', especially after experiences of political repression in Vietnam, allowing unruly youngsters to curtail the liberty of others comes across as a travesty of the freedom being espoused.

    These doubts notwithstanding, the Vietnamese commitment to their children's formal education is well put by this former fisherman: 'I want them to learn new skills for jobs offered in this country, say, computing, engineering and so on. We will do our best to support our children with their studies so that they will have a future in this country'.

    At the same time the Vietnamese do not want their cultural identity to be lost, particularly the mother tongue. Voicing the opinion of most Vietnamese parents, one put it thus: 'Without the teaching of Chinese overseas there would be no overseas Chinese'. It is in this context that the Vietnamese and Chinese Saturday school movement must be understood. This movement is one of the most vigorous of any ethnic group in London, and is financially supported not only by the local authority, but by donations from Vietnamese here and abroad. Both the mother tongue and remedial education in the standard curriculum subjects are taught, mainly by volunteers. As with the Black supplementary school movement, the aim is not to replace mainstream schooling but to enhance it.

    Much of what the Vietnamese say about the educational system clearly reflects their own cultural background, their experiences as refugees and the desire to overcome their problems, particularly those of high unemployment and of cultural isolation. The emphasis and hope they place on education is wellplaced according to studies of other, older migrants and refugees. Education does pay off in spite of the limitations, inequities and injustices of its provision. Other aspects of the Vietnamese narrative on education indicate that the Vietnamese now feel that they are refugees no more, but permanent residents and citizens. As such it is not surprising that much of what they say may strike a chord among other sections of the population, perhaps with most of it. Their desire for more sense of purpose, more conviction from the teachers in their job, racism to be rooted out, and the promotion of selfesteem and academic excellence are things most of the population hold as important. The freshness and subtlety of the Vietnamese commentary on British education can perhaps serve to reaffirm its importance, to encourage those who strive to provide it and to hasten its improvement and fairer provision.

    Dr Tom Lam, a Vietnamese refugee, currently works as a researcher at South Bank University and has been conducting a survey of the Vietnamese population in South East London. He also works on the Greenwich Health Project.

    Dr Christopher Martin's PhD thesis was on 'Education and migration in East Africa'; he has also conducted research in the same field in Latin America. He is currently attached to the South Bank University and is conducting research on 'Emigration and new migrants in Britain'.


    CareyWood J, Duke K, Karn V and Marshall T, The settlement of refugees in Britain, Home Office Research Study 141, HMSO, London, 1995.

    Jones P R, Vietnamese refugees: a study of their reception and resettlement, HMSO, London, 1982.

    Lam T and Martin C J, 'Vietnamese in the UK: fifteen years of settlement' Occasional Papers in Sociology and Social Policy 2, South Bank University, London, 1994.

    Lam T and Martin C J, 'The Settlement of the Vietnamese in London: official policy and refugee responses' in Social Science Research Reports, South Bank University, London, forthcoming 1996.

    Robinson V, 'British policy towards the settlement patterns of ethnic groups: an empirical evaluation of the Vietnamese programme, 197988' in The International Refugee Crisis: British and Canadian Responses, Refugee Studies ProgrammeMacmillan, 1993.

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    October 1996