Thomas White Global Investing
South Korea
South Korea Stamp
August 26, 2011
A Postcard from the Asia-Pacific
South Korea: An end to Saturday classes?

South Korean school children

The South Korean government announced that primary and secondary schools would remain shut on all Saturdays from 2012, sparking protests from education hungry parents.

Tiger moms unite.

Kyoyungnyél, or “education fever,” ignited across South Korea around 70 years ago and is yet to show signs of cooling down. This phenomenon, which gained notable pace in the 1940s, helped catapult the country from the bottom of the list of world’s richest nations to one among the top fifteen today.

With this, South Koreans, especially parents of school-age children, wave the flag of their educational and academic achievements like fashionistas flaunt their high-end designer handbags.

In South Korea, education is regarded as a status symbol and a matter of pride. But recently, the education fever that created “tiger moms” has taken on a whole new mission.

On June 14, mirroring the adoption of a five-day work week, the South Korean government announced that from 2012 onwards, all primary and secondary schools would remain shut on Saturdays. Prior to the decision, South Korean schools were closed only on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, while classes were held on the remaining Saturdays. The June announcement sparked off a rally cry, mainly from South Korean mothers with school-age children. These parents had a simple reason for protesting the end of Saturday classes – they feared that their children would lag behind in the competitive race for grades.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development’s (OECD) 2009 assessment of education systems in various nations, Korea was second only to Shanghai, China in terms of literacy among the OECD countries. The list of OECD countries includes English-speaking nations such as the U.K., the United States, Australia and New Zealand – all of whom ranked lower on the literacy mean score list than their Korean counterparts. South Korea also topped the OECD charts for reading skills among fifteen-year olds.

With Saturday classes coming to a definite end next year, though, South Korean parents fear that their children’s grades will slip both in the domestic and global education races. Indeed, when Japan cut the number of days in its school week to five in 2002, the country lost its stronghold in the OECD rankings. According to Bloomberg, between 2000 and 2006, the ranking of Japanese high-school students dropped from the top position in math to the tenth, from second to sixth in science and eighth to fifteenth in reading comprehension.

To save their children from the fate that befell the Japanese students, South Korean mothers turned to the only other alternative available to compensate for the loss of Saturday classes – additional private tutoring. According to a Korea Times report, last year South Korean households spent a staggering $18 billion to bolster their children’s education at private cram schools (hagwons) and private tutoring institutions. In fact, spending on private education has been steadily on the rise in South Korea since 2001. The Korea Times noted that just last year the number of students who attended after-school programs rose by 4.3%. With Saturday classes at schools coming to an end, this trend is only likely to continue and the amount spent by South Koreans on private education is set to increase.

So why would the government and the Korean Federation of Teachers Association (KFTA) push for the end of Saturday classes? The KFTA felt that stopping Saturday classes altogether would reduce the pressure of learning on students and give teachers extra time to prepare more effective lessons, while the government wanted to shift the focus away from the obsession with tests and grades. President Lee Myung Bak’s government also decided to stop Saturday classes to free up time for students to play and spend time with family instead.

Still, parents, who remain fixated on tests and are worried about their children falling back in the competitive educational space, are unlikely to let this happen. After all, the “education fever” that continues to grip the nation has only become fiercer. As one South Korean mother told Bloomberg – “It would be a brave mother who let them play.” Let the tigers roar.

 

Image Credit: skinnylawyer on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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