The Secrets of South Korea

At the end of World War II, South Korea was a nation with an 80% illiteracy rate. It wasn’t until after the North and South Korean war in the 1950’s that South Korea began to quickly climb the ladder to educational excellence with a fierce determination that has resulted in this resource-poor nation being ranked amongst the top in global education today.

With a population of nearly 52 million, education is the most important priority among South Koreans, and the pressure to succeed is a strong motivator to avoid the inevitable social relegation for those who do not or cannot attain a University degree. This means that competitiveness is rife for places in the top 3 Universities, and in such a densely populated country this, stress levels are elevated. Students often study up to 16 hours a day from the age of 6 years and after completing the final 3 years of Upper Secondary School the graduation rate is 95%, an achievement which reflects the importance the South Koreans place on education. Teachers are highly valued, with teaching being a popular career choice among South Koreans owing to the high social status, job stability and very high pay package. The percentage of South Korean teachers who hold bachelors degrees is among the highest in the world. In fact, there is a saying in South Korea that ‘Teachers are as High as God.’

Everything in South Korean society depends on having a top education, including marriage, job and social prospects. Parents work hard to obtain the best education for their children and in return, children work hard to meet their parents’ very high expectations.

South Korea certainly does things differently! Their unique age-calculating system makes every citizen one year older at the New Year. This means that children born on December 31st will be 2 years old on the following day. They also celebrate the day of their birth, but their age increases each New Year, making them all one year older than their peers elsewhere in the world. Culturally, they all have similar ambitions with most families aspiring to the same outcomes and level of success.

Within just a few decades South Korea has achieved a miraculous turnaround with their educational system and there are several factors instrumental to their success.

In contrast to the more relaxed, child-centred learning practices in Finland and Denmark, the teaching methods in South Korea are authoritarian, test-driven and move quickly, forcing the responsibility onto the student to keep up with the very fast pace of lessons, whether they have understood the subject or not. In order to overcome this, students often continue working at home until midnight with extra lessons.

Technology and domestic science are taught equally to boys and girls, along with Moral education, Korean language, social studies, maths, science, Physical Education, Music, Fine Arts and Practical Arts.

South Korea is always seeking to reform its system, including creativity and character building along with key competencies in all subjects. Public and private schools receive government funding from the Ministry of Education, and children with Special Needs receive specialist funding and academic support. There is also a strong focus on leadership pathways and improvement training for teachers. The system demands that every 5 years, teachers, deputy heads and headteachers have to change schools. This mandatory rotation allows the spread and sharing of expertise throughout schools, while helping teachers develop their own skills without becoming stale in the same environment for too long.

The South Korean culture supports a philosophy of reverence for education which runs through the population. Students are taught respect for their teachers and their schools, being encouraged to keep the buildings spotlessly clean and litter free.

However, there is a cost attached to such polished excellence. The pressure to succeed is so strong that the suicide rates between the ages of 10 and 16 are the highest in the world. In South Korea it is the 4th most common cause of death and usually related to anxiety around exams.

Many of the secrets of South Korea’s success in education can be adopted in other countries, but perhaps with a mellowing in the intensity of its cultural desire to succeed at all costs.

After all, All Work and No Play…

‘At the End of Hardship comes Happiness’ Korean proverb