Education system in South Korea

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Education in South Korea is largely state-funded, and compulsory between ages six and fourteen. Believed by some to be the best education system in the world, South Korea benefits from heavy state investment in education, as well as an extremely rigorous school day, particularly for those in high school. It is widely believed that the government’s desire to invest in “human capital” through concentrating on education has led to the economic success of the nation in recent years, as well as extremely high literacy rates.

Primary Education

The first six years of a Korean student’s education takes place in Elementary school, or Chodeung-hakgyo. The curriculum for these schools is nationally standardised, and is centred largely around a basic grounding in Mathematics, the Korean language, Science, Music and Art. In third grade (age 8), children begin to learn English, usually in a laid-back manner through informal conversation rather than detailed study of grammatical structures. Although specialised teachers often teach English, students usually remain in the same classroom with the same teacher for this stage of their educational development.

Middle School

After completing Elementary School, children usually spend two years studying at a Middle School, jung-hakgyo, in preparation for High School. Middle school begins at grade seven (age 12) and children follow a curriculum that consists of twelve major subjects including Mathematics, Korean and English. Unlike in Elementary Schools, teachers are specialists in individual subject areas.

High School

Children begin High School, or godeung-hakgyo, at tenth grade (age 15). The nature of High School education varies widely between institutions in South Korea. There are both vocational and academic high schools, with the majority of students (68%) attending academic schools. There are also a small number of specialised high schools centred around a particular academic subject such as Science or a language. In academic high schools students usually remain in the same classroom, and are visited by a range of specialist teachers who move from room to room between periods. The curriculum of academic high schools is usually geared towards university entrance exams, which are covered in more detail in the higher education section.

School day and school structure

The school day in South Korea is unusually long, beginning at 8:00am and finishing at 4:30pm and students often enhance this through independent study before and after these times. High School students usually visit the school library for further study, or attend private tuition sessions between 10:00pm and midnight. It is also important to note that very few institutions past primary level are co-educational, and those that are remain internally divided between the sexes.

Higher Education

University is extremely popular in South Korea, with over 300 higher education institutions, both private and public, throughout the country. University remains an important factor in determining the success of a South Korean student's later life, however the increasing availability of adult and vocational education means this is less acute than it was in the past. The highest-level universities admit students based on their performance on specific entrance examinations, an idea taken from the Japanese education system. The examinations (which have been criticised for their intensity, and the pressure they put on students) are based around particular subject areas such as Mathematics, Science and the English language, and students often begin preparation for them years in advance. Although nearly every major Korean city will have its own university, the most prestigious universities in South Korea are Yonsei University and Seoul National University. Most students attend four-year university courses, and most of the larger institutions offer the possibility of attaining post-graduate degrees.

Alternative Education

Private schools

The private and public educational sectors are heavily integrated in South Korea. Often students will attend public school, but compliment this with private after-school tuition classes. The private schools that do exist have come under fire for being very independent of the Korean Ministry of Education, and enjoy very little government oversight.

Special Needs Schools

The number of what are known as Special Schools in South Korea has expanded rapidly in the last decade or so. Special Schools cater for children with a variety of disabilities, and are state-funded.

Useful Links

A detailed document outlining the provision of Special Needs education in Korea (Visited 13-July-05)

An informative article looking at the structure of the Korean education system and outlining recent changes (Visited 13-July-05)

The Korean Ministry of Education
Provides detailed and up-to-date information about the Korean education system. (Visited 13-July-05)

Alternatives Schools in Korea