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Conditions for the educational system in South Korea

Holistic Think Tank

It is well known that the driving force behind South Korea’s economic growth is its zeal for education. In South Korea’s SAT listening test time, even airplanes across the country do not land to reduce noise. Through this report, I would like to inform you about education in Korea.

Historical conditions

Modern education in Korea started in 1945, when it was officially liberated from Japanese rule, but in a broader sense, it started with the “Gabo Reform” in 1894 which is sometimes called ‘Gabo education reform’. It introduced a modern state system and integrated these attempts into a state-centered public education. Faculty, an institution in charge of national education, was newly established in accordance with the Gabo Education Reform. Along with this, various types of private schools appeared, and the Private Schools Act was enacted in 1900. The Joseon government established “Byeolgi-gun”, where foreign language education and science education were provided along with Western-style military training. On the other hand, there were attempts at modern education in the private sector as well. At the end of the 19th century, the education project was promoted for the propagation of Catholicism and Christianity. “Paichai Hakdang”, and “Ewha Hakdang” built at that time, were the first modern educational institutions established by the private sector and became the origin of modern universities.

When Japanese colonial rule began in 1910, Korean education was greatly influenced by Japan. From then on, the curriculum was divided into three stages, and elementary schools, middle schools, and vocational schools were newly established.

After liberation, the government tried to create a new curriculum and textbook in order to avoid using the Japanese curriculum. The result of these efforts is the “School syllabus”. It detailed the instructional content of the subject, gave strength to cultivating basic abilities, and adopted divisionism, focusing on systematic guidance, and cultivating intelligence. The biggest educational task in this era was to open education to all citizens and expand the opportunities. Thus, in 1945, the state made every effort to fully implement compulsory education in national schools, which had only 64% of the enrollment rate.

As a result of these efforts, remarkable quantitative growth was achieved in the 1960s. Thus, in the early 1970s, the enrollment rate of compulsory education reached a high level of 96.9%, and with economic growth, investment in education increased and the public’s high enthusiasm for education acted on it resulted in an increase.

After quantitative growth, the 1970s can be seen as a time to start trying to develop qualitatively while continuing to expand the quantity of education.  Starting with the no-exam lottery system in 1969, the reform of the secondary school entrance examination system such as the high school equalization policy in 1973, expansion of university facilities and operation of experimental universities, etc. South Korea education, which has grown in this way, has created a foundation for economic self-reliance by developing excellent manpower, instilled a sense of security necessary for an independent national defense, and greatly contributed to the systematization of Korean values ​​following the creation and nurturing of national culture.

As mentioned above, Korea has developed its economy based on education. Therefore, the public’s desire for education was more intense than anyone else’s, and the side effect of overheating of education began to occur. In the 1980s, the government started to come up with various policies to calm this overheating phenomenon. A representative example is the “July 30 Education Reform,” which includes policies such as bans on private tutoring, abolition of university main exam, and expansion of university admission quotas. However, the policy failed due to the prevalence of secret tutoring, and it did not bring about any fundamental change.

In the 1990s, the Act on Local Education Autonomy was enacted, and the education autonomy system was implemented. In addition, the Minister of Education was elevated to the position of deputy prime minister, placing education as the nation’s top priority. Efforts to quench the overheated zeal for education, such as overcoming private education, continued, but these efforts were criticized for causing a decline in academic ability.

In 2002, a plan to improve the university admission system that emphasizes special skills and aptitudes was announced. In college entrance exams, the three-no-one policy was maintained, which bans the university main exam, high school quality, and contribution admission system.

In 2008, With the goal of easing competition in the entrance exam and eliminating the ranking of universities, a reform plan for the university entrance examination system was implemented, which included reflecting the academic record as a major factor in the university entrance examination and converting the CSAT test to a grade system. Furthermore, for the reduction of private education expenses and equal rights in education, public broadcasting broadcast lectures for the CSAT and made efforts such as submitting the questions contained in the broadcasting and textbooks of broadcast.

After 2008, emphasizing the autonomy and diversification of school education, it promoted the introduction of autonomous private high schools, boarding-type public high schools, and Meister high schools. A national level evaluation of academic achievement was conducted to evaluate the academic level of students, and the ‘admission control system’ was introduced in the university entrance examination. The grading system was abolished, and the overall difficulty level was lowered. In order to break away from the overheated competition centered on entrance exams, the ‘free semester system’ is being implemented and the high school curriculum abolition of liberal arts division is being promoted. Since 2017, Korean history has been designated as a compulsory subject for the college entrance exam, and the admission process has been simplified.

Legal System for Education in South Korea

Education-related basic laws refer to laws and regulations that affected the overall education at each period, including the 「Education Act」 enacted as Act No. 86 on December 31, 1949. Education-related basic laws are the basic frame that supports the modern education system. The 「Education Act」 embodied the spirit of legalism in the education system, guaranteeing the people’s right to education, implementing free and compulsory education, as stipulated in Article 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea. Regarding the guarantee of the people’s right to education, Article 1 of the Education Act states, “Education is the ideal of human co-prosperity, serving the development of a democratic country by enabling all citizens to perfect their personality and acquire the ability to live independently and the qualities of a citizen under the ideology of Hongik Ingan”, indicating that it will implement democracy education for all citizens. In detail, the principle of autonomy in education that pursues the original purpose of education by excluding political and religious influences (Article 5), and the principle of equal educational opportunity that guarantees equal opportunities for all citizens to study according to their abilities (Article 9 ), and the principle of national accountability (Articles 12 and 14) that the state and public organizations should implement sufficient educational facilities and fair educational administration.

The eight main points of the 「Basic Law on Education」 are presented as follows.

  1. All citizens have the right to education and the freedom to learn according to their abilities and aptitudes throughout their lives.
  2. The autonomy of school operation is respected, and faculty, students, parents, and residents can participate in school operation as stipulated by laws and regulations.
  3. Schools have a public nature, maintain, and develop academic and cultural traditions in addition to student education, and strive for lifelong education of residents.
  4. All forms of social education for lifelong education are encouraged, and the completion of social education is recognized as the corresponding completion of school education as stipulated by laws and regulations.
  5. The basic human rights of learners must be respected and protected in the course of education, and students must comply with school rules and do not interfere with the teaching activities of teachers.
  6. Caregivers, such as parents, have the right and responsibility to educate their children and may provide opinions to the school regarding the education of their children.
  7. A person who establishes and manages schools and social education facilities shall secure facilities and teachers for education, and the head of a school shall select and educate learners as prescribed by laws and regulations.
  8. The state shall establish and implement a system for evaluating academic background and accreditation so that the learning process of the people can be fairly evaluated and used.

Education System of South Korea

The education system in South Korea can be broadly divided into early childhood education, elementary/secondary education, and higher education.

In South Korea, institutions that educate young children are divided into two types: kindergartens and daycare centers. Kindergarten is an institution that educates children aged 3 to 5, and daycare is an institution that provides care and education for children aged 0 to 5. Kindergartens belong to the Ministry of Education and daycare centers belong to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, so they receive administrative and financial guidance separately. In 2012, the government enacted a standard education plan called ‘Nuri Curriculum’ to resolve educational inequalities that may arise from these differences.

The elementary and secondary school system in South Korea is 6 years of elementary education (ages 6-12, elementary school), 3 years of secondary education in the first half (ages 12-15, middle school), 3 years of secondary education (ages 15-18, high school) is composed of. A total of 9 years of education from elementary school to middle school are compulsory. Elementary and secondary school in South Korea must meet the establishment standards stipulated by the Presidential Decree, such as facilities and equipment, and must be approved by the superintendent of the city/province. The Minister of Education sets the standards and contents of the curriculum, and the superintendents of cities and provinces can set the standards and contents suitable for local circumstances within this range. High schools in South Korea are divided into general high schools, special purpose high schools, vocational high schools, and autonomous high schools according to the curriculum operation and school autonomy. Except for vocational high schools, all other types of schools aim for university entrance exams. In the case of a vocational high school, the purpose is to find a job after graduation. In other words, this school can be defined as a high school for the purpose of operating a customized curriculum directly linked to the demands of the industry for the development of professional vocational education. Students of this school learn the knowledge and skills necessary for the job field in the first and second grades, and in the third year, they learn while working in the field, and then find employment after graduation. Irrespective of school division, all high school graduates are recognized at the same level of academic achievement. In addition, these academic qualifications can be replaced by the high school graduate equivalency test(HSGET).

In South Korea, universities, polytechnic university, university of education, colleges, virtual university etc. are established to provide higher education. Universities offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The most common types of universities in Korea are university and colleges. The university runs a bachelor’s program for four years and is more focused on academics. On the other hand, colleges are operated with a two-year bachelor’s program and are more focused on vocational training. Therefore, high school students choose what type of higher education system they want to go to during the college admissions process. It is generally believed that colleges require higher scores than junior colleges in order to be admitted. However, recently, the popularity of colleges is increasing as the difficulty in finding a job has worsened. Generally, the duration of study for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs is 4 to 6 years, more than 2 years, and more than 2 years, respectively. Most college students get a job after completing their bachelor’s degree (2-4 years).

Basic statistics of education in South Korea

According to the Ministry of Education’s basic statistics on education in 2021, the number of kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools is 20,771, and the total number of elementary, secondary, and secondary school students is 5,957,087, which has been on a steady decline since 2011. This decline in the educated population may be attributed to the low birth rate. The causes of the low birth rate can be divided into economic factors and social/demographic factors. Economic factors include an increase in the burden of child-rearing costs, an increase in women’s economic activity participation rate, and an increase in childbirth avoidance due to job instability. Social/demographic factors include changes in marriage and children’s views, the reality that it is difficult to balance work and family, and the rise in the age of first marriage and child birth. A noteworthy fact is that there are 160,056 multicultural students in elementary and secondary schools, accounting for 3.0% of the total number of students, and has been steadily increasing since 2012. This is a phenomenon that occurred as the number of domestic youth decreased and the influx of foreign youth increased. Korea is a single-ethnic country, and students of various races are not used to studying together. Therefore, the increase in the number of multicultural students is mentioned as an urgent task that must be solved in the Korean education.

Another major task in Korean education is the collapse of higher education institutions. The number of higher education institutions in 2021 decreased from the previous year to a total of 426. This can be said to be caused by a decrease in the number of students. The number of enrolled students in higher education institutions decreased by 74,766 (2.3%↓) compared to the previous year. The university entrance rate in Korea is 73.7%, which is very high. The number of universities increased to meet this demand, but due to a decrease in the birth rate, the number of enrolled students decreased, causing the university to collapse.

Major issues in education: education centered on entrance exams

South Korea is one of the countries with the highest zeal for education in the world. Since South Korea is a country with a small land area and not abundant in resources, the formation of human resources through education is the only way for South Korea to prosper. For this reason, Korean parents are literally doing everything they can to improve their children’s academic abilities. As a result, South Korea has grown a lot economically, but there are also obvious side effects.

The most notable side effect is the collapse of public education and the loss of direction of education. Education centered on entrance exams can be said to be education that encourages excessive educational competition among students by providing education for higher education rather than realization of the educational value that school education must pursue. Under this circumstance, it is natural that the direction of education should move toward exam-oriented subject study rather than human character or holistic education. Therefore, for many students, when evaluating a person, what kind of sign they have is a more important criterion than the ability that person has. The characteristics of education centered on entrance exams are directly permeated into school education. The specific problems of education are as follows.

First, public education collapsed, and the private education market was activated. 74% of Korean adolescents (elementary school student to high school student) receive private tutoring and participate in private tutoring for an average of 6.5 hours per week. The Korean private education market is worth 20,997 billion won, which is equivalent to 171.2 billion dollars in dollars. The average annual private education cost per youth is 3.85 million won, which is similar to the average monthly salary of Korean office workers. What is even more serious is that, despite the government’s continuous efforts to revitalize public education, the private education market is growing. Such expansion of the private education market lowers the function of public education, widens the educational gap, and further increases social costs double.

Second, excessive competition is causing psychological problems among adolescents. Suicide is the number one cause of death among Korean teenagers, which is the 7th highest among OECD countries. Academic stress is the most frequently mentioned factor in predicting suicide among adolescents. In addition to suicide, education focused on entrance exams has various adverse effects on the psychology of adolescents, such as refusal to attend school, anxiety about exams, and delinquency.

Major issues in education: Out-of-school youth

As mentioned above, the 9 years of compulsory education up to middle school in Korea are compulsory, and the high school enrollment rate is very high at 91.3%. There was a lack of interest in out-of-school youth, which accounts for a relatively small number, thus the actual situation of out-of-school youth was not properly understood. However, albeit a relatively small number, the number of out-of-school adolescents continue to occur, so the Korean government enacted the “Act on Support for Out-of-School Youth” 2014 to understand the actual situation of out-of-school youth and to support them.

The reason for the need for a law to support out-of-school youth can be explained by the cause of the out-of-school youth. The reasons for the occurrence of out-of-school youth can be divided into school, family, personal, and social environmental factors. A detailed description of each factor is as follows.

First, the school factor is mentioned as the most direct factor in the occurrence of out-of-school youth. According to education statistics, school maladjustment accounted for the largest proportion among the causes of school dropouts among adolescents. The reasons that adolescents do not adjust to school include poor grades, repeated truancy, negative relationships with teachers and peers, and bullying. If adolescents who are in the socialization stage experience difficulties in forming proper relationships at school, it may have a negative effect on forming relationships in adulthood, so continuous efforts by the government are required.

Second, family factors can be explained by the structural defects of the family such as low socioeconomic status of parents, single-parent families, and the relationship between parents and children. As such, adolescents who have difficulties in their relationship with their parents need careful management because they can experience various psychological and behavioral problems. However, when the youth drop out of school, there is no basis for supporting these youths. Therefore, the Korean government tried to provide a legal basis for supporting these youths through the Out-of-School Youth Support Act.

Third, psychological and behavioral problems of adolescents affect school suspension. Psychological problems such as depression, aggression, and low self-esteem are highly likely to affect school adjustment and lead to school dropouts. Deviance behavior affects the school suspension of adolescents, and in this case, it is highly likely to become a crisis group, so special management is required.

Lastly, if education policies or the school system do not respond flexibly to the rapidly changing social environment, school suspension may occur. In such cases, it is necessary to support the youth through social safety nets other than schools.

There is no need to look at out-of-school youth unconditionally in a negative light, but as mentioned above, since out-of-school youth often arise from negative causes, in this case, meticulous support will be needed.

Therefore, the government enacted the Out-of-School Youth Support Act with the goal of helping out-of-school youth grow into healthy members of society, and intends to provide the following support. The Ministry of Education established and operated alternative schools and implemented the study suspension deliberation system. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is implementing various policies targeting out-of-school youths, such as youth companions, at risk youth support, community youth integrated support system (CYS-net), and youth shelter operation.

Korean Education in COVID times

When COVID-19 was at its initial stage of transmission in January 2020, the Ministry of Education organized the “COVID-19 Prevention Task Force” led by the Vice Minister. After the infection started to spread more broadly and the national alert level was elevated, the Task Force was expanded to the “COVID-19 Response Headquarters,” involving 32 divisions of the Ministry of Education, led by the Deputy Prime Minister (Minister of Education) in February 2020.  The Response Headquarters consisted of four departments, which were the “Kindergartens and   Primary· Secondary School Response Department,” “Higher Education and International Students   Response Department,” “Financial Response Department,” and “Social Affairs Cooperation Department.”   For example, the Kindergartens and Primary ·Secondary School Response Department was in charge of managing school disinfection activities, school closure and reopening schedules, and assisting   the provincial offices of education to prevent and control COVID-19 infection. The Higher Education and International Students Response Department provided comprehensive support for international   students and was in charge of disease control and prevention measures and academic affairs   management in universities. The Social Affairs Cooperation Department was responsible for promoting   cooperation among the relevant ministries that manage social affairs policies, which was reflective of the role of the Ministry of Education, as its Minister also serves as the Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs. On July 1, the “University COVID-19 Response Team” was expanded to the “Comprehensive   COVID-19 School Response Division,” and the “COVID-19 Online Education Infrastructure Division” was   newly established at the Ministry of Education.

Schools were supported in various ways as they prepared for the first-ever” online semester (online school reopening). “The introduction of the online semester was staggered to allow schools sufficient   time to prepare, starting with the third grade high school students and third grade middle school students.  In addition, guidelines were developed to give clear instructions to teachers on student   attendance, evaluation, and the recording of school transcripts. Teachers and students were offered a   code of conduct that they could refer to in their online learning and teaching activities. The provincial   offices of education and schools came up with their own protocols and plans to operate online   education based on the government guidelines, taking into account local contexts and professional advice from teachers.

Kindergartens and primary and secondary schools were swiftly assisted in providing in-person instruction in parallel with online instruction. To help schools to transition to in-person education, guidelines for school reopening were distributed which contained instructions on student attendance, assessment, and school transcript recording. For example, to ease the burden of assessment on   students, the extent to which student assessment outcomes were reflected on their school transcripts   was adjusted appropriately. During online classes, teachers were only allowed to carry out student   assessments based on their direct observation of students’ activities during the online classes, such as their participation in real-time online debates and discussions. After physical school attendance   was allowed, teachers utilized the learning outcomes submitted by their students during the online classes in their in-person classes, while observing students’ progress in learning in order to reflect all   these factors on the school transcript. In addition, the Ministry of Education developed plans for flexible   management of academic affairs and shared them with schools and the provincial offices of education, to help them better prepare for school reopening. Moreover, in consideration of the national social   distancing measures, schools were allowed to decide their level of population density and to choose   between in-person and online education that matched their circumstances and better served their   needs, so that they could make plans for education in the second half of the 2020 academic year.

Researched and written by: BuKyung Kim

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