South Korea has long led the pack in terms of academic benchmarks. However, when addressing academic performance, analysts explain that emphasis should be placed on the achievements of individual students rather than giving credit to a loosely-defined education system that valorizes bureaucracy rather than pupils. In the end, South Korean scholars practice extreme self-discipline and must cope with acute stress to maximize their academic performance and to carry South Korea to the forefront of global education rankings. These eight facts about education in South Korea catch a glimpse into the life of students and the rigorous curriculum.
8 Facts about Education in South Korea
- Schooling is compulsory in South Korea until the age of 15. Pupils begin their education at 6-years-old when they attend primary school. When they reach 12-years-old, they transition to a lower secondary school for three years. At 15-years-old, South Korean students decide to continue their education by completing an entrance exam and committing to an Academic Senior Secondary School or a Vocational Senior Secondary School.
- In 2012, South Korea offered free half-day kindergartens for children of ages 3-5. Parents also have the option of enrolling their children in tuition-based private preschools, although the former option is becoming more popular. At a rate surpassing 90 percent, enrollment in early childhood education is very high compared to the rest of the world.
- Before attending a university, South Korean students enrolled in secondary school must take the suneung, the extremely rigorous and fateful college entrance exam that largely governs one’s future. On the day of the suneung, flight paths are diverted around testing centers to prevent test-takers from losing focus on the exam. Months, and even years leading up to the suneung, parents will enroll their children in weekend and after-school test preparatory academies called hagwons. These are notoriously referred to as cram houses.
- Discipline serves as the bedrock of education in South Korea. Students are obliged to rise and bow when their teachers enter the classroom, and South Koreans generally tend to have enormous respect for their mentors. Along with principal subjects such as science, mathematics and language, civil morality is a central pillar manifested in curricula throughout the entirety of compulsory schooling.
- A strongly-rooted cultural emphasis on discipline becomes blurred with the stress epidemic. The typical school day in South Korea begins at 8 a.m. and ends around 5 p.m., and following a short break at home, many students return to school libraries or hagwons to study into the later hours of the evening, sometimes even until midnight. The stresses of attaining educational achievement sometimes reap fatal outcomes; in South Korea, suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers.
- South Korean students consistently perform among the best in the world, according to statistics of standardized test scores and college drop-out rates. Although the South Korean education system placed third in the world during the first quarter of 2019, it was ranked as the best in the world for four consecutive years from 2013-2017.
- Alongside learning subjects such as basic Korean language and mathematics, students in grades one and two take subjects that reaffirm South Korean values that emphasize happiness and discipline, such as “Good Life,” “Happy Life” and “Wise Life.”
- Following major reforms beginning in 1995, education in South Korea has been transitioning from focusing on optimizing standardized test results and cramming students for college entrance exams to implementing a new curriculum that incorporates the humanities and realities of a globalized world. Class lectures emphasize community and global citizenry, and teachers underscore the importance of learning about new cultures and foreign intellect.
These eight facts about education in South Korea show mixed results for students. South Korean students have incredible performance rates, yet they are also susceptible to high stress-induced suicide rates. It is worth taking a critical look at their curriculum to better understand what works and what doesn’t.
– Grayson Cox