Be careful what you wish for


The South Korean education system we know from OECD Pisa is regarded as if not the best education system in the world, certainly in the top three.

South Korean 15-year-olds rank first in reading and maths, and third (behind Finland and Japan) in science, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. teens by comparison, rank 14th, 25th and 17th in the three categories.  But we also know that despite this apparent success Koreans themselves are worried about the future.

Many pupils have extremely long school days and there is a heavy emphasis on after school extra tuition, which threatens pupils with burn out, even before they get to tertiary education. Children study in after-school academies, known as hagwon, until 11 p.m. and often beyond, to such an extent that the government is now seeking to clamp down on after hours tuition and rewarding parents who spill the beans. The government has limited how much hagwon can charge and how many hours they can meet (in theory, not past 10 p.m.). Seoul families spend 16 percent of their income on after hours  private schooling and this is seen as one reason why many parents say they can afford only one child.

Korea now has one of the world’s lowest birth rates at 1.1 child per woman. This extra tuition is common in the Far East.  In Shanghai, China, which topped the last Pisa study, 80% of pupils are thought to have extra tuition.   Singapore  itself accused of hothousing its own  pupils ,with too much after schools tuition, in its defence cites   South Korea and says that their system is less pressured, with some justification .

But much of Korea’s progress, in just half a century, from abject poverty to developed-world prosperity owes much to its schools and its devotion to schooling.  Now Korean educators are beginning to complain about an emphasis on by rote learning a stifling of creativity, (a worry shared by Singapore) a failure to teach usable English and a weakness in developing leadership skills. Much of the pressure arises because Koreans believe their children must go to University to guarantee themselves a middle-class future. As a result, Korea has one of the highest participation rates in HE of any nation. Competition for the best universities is incredibly fierce. The top 3 Korean universities are: Pohang University of Science And Technology (53rd in World); Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (94th in World) Seoul National University (124th in World).

But Korean officials are alarmed that many graduates are not finding jobs — more than 40 percent in the past year, even though the Korean economy was doing pretty well. That is why President Lee Myung-bak is promoting alternatives. Last month the president urged employers to hire more  secondary school graduates and promised, as an example, to hire three into the presidential Blue House this year and three more next year. “Professional footballers just need to be good at kicking balls,” Lee said. “They don’t need to graduate from Seoul National University.” The government also is investing in vocational schools designed to put young people on a career track without going to university “Reckless entrance into college,” Lee has said, is “bringing huge losses to households and the country alike.”

Michael Gove the Education Secretary is keen that we benchmark ourselves against the best in the world, which is a sound principle, but we must careful what we wish for and we cannot simply import other systems which have various culturally specific strengths and weaknesses.




  1. Coincidentally Patrick, I had a conversation yesterday with a researcher at a UK Thinktank about how the current administration’s education policy is driven by international examples, without anything that could be described as “new” or even UK-centric thinking. Not that “new” equals good or effective of course, but your post highlights very accurately the dangers of following “best practice” too slavishly.

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