One important decision, if you’re moving to South Korea with family, is how to ensure that your children receive the best possible education. Luckily, South Korea has a famously strong education system, and has delivered results well above the OECD averages across maths, science and reading for over a decade.
The education on offer for older children and teens, is demanding, with high pressure exams for students wanting to progress to university. However, the academic outcomes are undeniably good, and these days the South Korean government has a focus on encouraging students to be more creative, recognising strength beyond traditional exam subjects.
If you’re considering your options, you can compare the standard of education in South Korea with that available in your home country, with the PISA assessment framework from the OECD.
Whether you’ve already got your South Korean work visa, and have your move fully planned - or are just starting to think about life overseas, it helps to know a little about the education options in South Korea.
Here is a quick guide to get you started.
The South Korean education system
Pre-school (which is optional), is offered from age three, in South Korea, with compulsory schooling from the age of five or six. After primary school, children move onto middle school, known as Jung Haggyo, and then High School (Godeung Haggyo). Different areas of the country have slightly different systems, including the processes for allocating spots, which might be by lottery (especially in large, densely populated cities), or through selective testing.
|Pre-school||Optional for ages 3 - 6Fees are payable, although there's government support for parents of low income families|
|Chodeung Haggyo(Primary School)||Compulsory from age 6 - 12 for all childrenIn some cases, children are admitted age 5Education at primary level is free|
|Jung Haggyo(Middle School)||Compulsory for children aged 12 - 15Free of charge|
|Godeung Haggyo(Secondary School)||Not compulsory (but highly attended) from age 15 - 18, in specialist or vocational schoolsFees are charged but usually cover lunch as well as tuition|
Pre-school in South Korea isn't compulsory, so if you want your child to attend you have to enrol directly with the school you have chosen. Places are available for children aged between 3 and 5, with fees payable. The cost of pre-school varies enormously, and the best schools are oversubscribed. There are both government run and private options, with many private schools teaching in English for families who want their children to have a head start in the language.
Primary School (Chodeung Haggyo)
From the age of five or six (depending on space and a child’s ability), it’s compulsory to attend primary school in South Korea. This stage of schooling is provided free of charge. If you have a child of this age, registered with authorities, you’ll get a letter automatically telling you which school your child should attend. You’ll receive this letter even if you're homeschooling, or have your child at a private school, and you’ll have to contact the authorities to explain the situation if you don’t intend to take up the place offered.
Primary school lasts for 6 grades, and the curriculum is broad, covering basic skills, physical education and languages. From the third grade, English is taught an hour or two a week for all students. To attend school, your child must have had several vaccinations, which are offered free at medical centres. Teachers can check medical records online to make sure that this has been done.
Wrap around care is usually on offer from early in the morning until late in the evening. Additional before and after school care is charged for, although some families are entitled to free support if they're lower earners and both parents work.
Middle School (Jung Haggyo)
Middle school begins when students are around 12 years old, and lasts for three years. Middle school is free of charge in South Korea, and covers both compulsory and elective subjects.
The curriculum at this stage remains broad, covering math, Korean and English languages, social studies, science, art and PE. There are also ‘moral education’ classes.
At this stage schooling starts to intensify, with more pressure on children to get good grades. In areas where entry to high school is done on an academic basis, the pressure is on to make sure that they can gain entry to one of the more prestigious schools. Students are streamed according to their ability in many subjects, and competition can be fierce.
For the purpose of entry exams into higher secondary education, the student’s whole middle school career is considered. This takes the pressure off the final exams somewhat, but still requirs children to get consistently high grades. No surprise then, that at this stage many students start to have additional tuition outside of class.
Secondary School (Godeung Haggyo)
There are several different options for secondary education in South Korea. Students can choose to go to a school which specialises in foreign language, arts or music, for example, although they'll face stiff competition and have to take tests to enrol. Otherwise, there are also general schools, in which admission is arranged according to your home address.
At this stage, education must be paid for by parents - although there are some concessions for lower earning families. Included in the cost of tuition are school meals. This level of education, from around age 15 to 18, isn't considered compulsory in South Korea, although the take up is high.
If students want to go to university, they must take the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), which is notoriously difficult. It’s typical to take extra tuition or go to a ‘cram school’ in order to ensure good grades at this stage.
What’s the typical school calendar and hours?
The school year in the Korean state system is arranged into semesters, although the exact dates vary slightly according to the specific school preferences. The first semester typically runs from March through to mid July, with a summer vacation to follow. Then from the end of August you have the second semester, which runs until a break in the middle of February. Schools close for public holidays, and usually have a ‘half term’ break mid way through each semester.
It’s worth noting that this calendar applies to state schools only - in private and international schools the western standard calendar, with a long summer break and several weeks vacation at Christmas, is far more likely to be adopted.
What’s the cost of education?
There are fees charged for pre-school and secondary education under the state system, as well as additional costs for uniforms, transport and school materials. If you don't choose the state system and decide to find a private international school, the costs are also high.
South Korea has some 45 international schools, mainly in the major cities, teaching in English and other major world languages, and often using either the International Baccalaureate syllabus, or a variant of the United States standard curriculum. International schools are generally of a high standard, and therefore typically competitive, with testing and interviews to secure admission. You can expect the fees to vary widely depending on the specific school and the programme they offer. Fees of anything from USD 15,000 to USD 30,000 a year aren't uncommon.
Whichever route you decide is best for your family, there will be costs involved, and you don’t want to pay more than you have too. If you’re funding your child’s education from your account back home, use Transferwise to get the real exchange rate and cut out expensive international bank transfer fees.
The world may look to South Korea as a model for education — its students rank among the best on international education tests — but the system’s dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by Tiger Moms, cram schools and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay.
Granted, the South Korean system has its strengths. The idea that success is most important, no matter the cost, is a great motivator. My report card after the first exam in middle school ranked me 21st out of 60 students in my homeroom class. My mother, who was enlightened about the extreme horrors of South Korean education but nevertheless worried about my grades, immediately found me a private tutor for math, which helped me shoot up to a respectable No. 3 in the homeroom hierarchy.
But that was the early 1990s. Since then, this culture of competition has only spread.
Cram schools like the one I taught in — known as hagwons in Korean — are a mainstay of the South Korean education system and a symbol of parental yearning to see their children succeed at all costs. Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas. Students typically stay after regular school hours until 10 p.m. or later.
Herded to various educational outlets and programs by parents, the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night to ensure there is sufficient time for studying. Hagwons consume more than half of spending on private education.
This “investment” in education is what has been used to explain South Koreans’ spectacular scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, increasingly the standard by which students from all over the world are compared to one another.
But a system driven by overzealous parents and a leviathan private industry is unsustainable over the long run, especially given the physical and psychological costs that students are forced to bear.
Many young South Koreans suffer physical symptoms of academic stress, like my brother did. In a typical case, one friend reported losing clumps of hair as she focused on her studies in high school; her hair regrew only when she entered college.
Students are also inclined to see academic performance as their only source of validation and self-worth. Among young South Koreans who confessed to feeling suicidal in 2010, an alarming 53 percent identified inadequate academic performance as the main reason for such thoughts.
Not surprisingly, South Korea’s position in the international education hierarchy is flipped when it comes to youth happiness, with only 60 percent of the country’s students confessing to being content in school, compared with an average of 80 percent, in 2012, among the world’s wealthy nations.
There is a historical explanation for South Korea’s education fervor. During the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), having children pass the civil service examination administered by the royal court was seen as a sure conduit to social and material success for the entire family. As the late Professor Edward Wagner at noted, even then a form of private education persisted, with candidates taking years of lessons to prepare for the exam and wealthier families splurging on special tutors.
Korean culture’s special focus on the family unit is also a major factor. Many parents believe that their right to decide their children’s future is sacrosanct. And the view that the family is an economic unit perpetuates such tight control over children. Marriage, for example, still often functions as a financial transaction between two families. To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance and obedience.
Obedience to authority is enforced both at home and school. I remember the time I disagreed with my homeroom teacher in middle school by writing him a letter about one of his rules. The letter led to my being summoned to the teacher’s office, where I was berated for an hour and a half, not about the substance of my words but the fact that I had expressed my view at all. He had a class to teach but he did not bother to leave our meeting because he was so enraged that someone had questioned his authority. I knew then that trying to be rational or outspoken in school was pointless.
Despite decades of outright abuse and the entrenchment of this disturbing system, signs are emerging that some people are beginning to take reform seriously. In the course of coming to terms with the legacy of dictatorial rule, South Koreans have embraced the notion of “healing,” with the understanding that past political repression and continuing social pressure have engendered psychological ills that require redress. That trend has led to discussion of the detrimental effects the education system has on students and what should be done.
Another sign that things may move in a positive direction is the election in June of a large number of progressive education superintendents around the country, spurred by the growing desire of the public for reforms.
But to effect any meaningful change in education, a culture that treats its children as a commodity to be used in the service of the family or the national economy must be radically altered. The government must halt its unrelenting pursuit of a higher birthrate in the face of a shrinking population and cease viewing children as mere cogs in the country’s economy with no right to personal happiness.
South Korea must also encourage its citizens to see marriage not as a dutiful union that must yield tangible economic benefits, but as a life choice that can bring contentment and well-being. Only then can children be perceived as individuals with free will, rather than mere producers of wealth and status subject to onerous education.
A private education industry run amok must be better regulated to put children’s welfare first. Although successive presidents have made attempts to rein in the cram schools, including mandating a 10 p.m. closure, many hagwon owners flout the regulations by operating out of residential buildings or blacking out windows so that light cannot be seen from outside. And some parents hire private tutors to get around the rule.
The fight against these abuses would be far more effective if legislation were passed criminalizing excessive private education. Otherwise, South Korean parents may never recognize that the current system is a direct assault on the welfare of their own offspring. But above all, the conviction that academic success is paramount in life needs to be set aside completely. South Korea may have become an enviable economic superpower, but it has neglected the happiness of its people.
Decrying the state of young people’s existence in Korea, Yi Kwang-su, an early reformist intellectual, wrote in a 1918 essay, “On Child-Centrism,” “As long as parents live, children have no freedom and are treated like slaves or livestock not unlike subjects of a feudal lord.” Before South Korea can be seen as a model for the 21st century, it must end this age-old feudal system that passes for education and reflect on what the country’s most vulnerable citizens might themselves want.
Se-Woong Koo, a former fellow and lecturer in Korean studies at Yale, is the editor in chief of Korea Exposé, a news website launching later this month.Continue reading the main story