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South Korean education ranks high, but it’s the kids who pay

The South Korean education system focuses on hard work, but the side effects mean other countries might not want to replicate this. Shutterstock

In Korea, perhaps more so than anywhere else, educational success equals socioeconomic status. South Koreans view education as the main driver of social mobility, for themselves and their family. Graduating from a top university is the ultimate marker of high status and the pressure is on from an early age.

Competition and studying hard to be the best is deeply ingrained in the psyche of Korean students; the entire environment surrounding the child (parents, family, and teachers) is actively involved and geared towards the same goal: to be test-ready and succeed. Students have a clear path and a clear purpose in mind at the start of their educational journey.

Why do South Korean students consistently dominate league tables?

According to global expert on education reform Sir Michael Barber, Korean culture “prizes effort above inherited ‘smartness’”, and believes long hours studying and hard work will eventually pay off.

Research has found the attitudes and strong beliefs of Asian parents make an important contribution to their children’s academic success. Researchers from Stanford University say Asian children find motivation to succeed in parental expectations.

Australian children with East Asian parents outperform their Australian peers, with researchers finding East Asian children spent 15 hours a week studying after school (9 hours for Australians), and have a stronger work ethic and higher aspirations (94% of them expect to go on to university).

Experts and heads of state, from US President Barack Obama to former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, often cite Finnish schools or the “Asian Model” as the panacea to improve our education systems.

The fact that American children “spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea” will, according to Obama, in “no way prepare them for a 21st-century economy”. This belief seems to increasingly resonate in the corridors of power in many parts of the educational world.

Is the South Korean educational model replicable?

“To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance and obedience,” argued Yale academic See-Wong Koo. This statement seems miles away from recent reports by education company Pearson and the OECD placing South Korea at the top of the education league tables.

While Finland is considered a non-competitive system of education, South Korea’s is often described as very stressful, authoritarian, brutally competitive and meritocratic. It emphasises high pressure and high performance, particularly for the 640,621 students who took the eight-hour long suneung (College Scholastic Ability Test) nationwide in November 2014.

This event is critical in the life of South Korean families - entry to one of the three most prestigious “SKY” universities (Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei) will basically determine social status for most of their lives and will secure a highly-paid job in one of the chaebols (family-owned business conglomerates).

Education at all levels and particularly in science and engineering, is viewed as a key to upward mobility in the still highly stratified Korean society. As a consequence, a new phenomenon has emerged in recent years: Dwaeji Omma, or “Pig Mums”.

A Pig Mum does her research thoroughly and keeps her eyes on the ultimate target: a Korean Ivy-league university for her child and her “adopted” children (those belonging to her Pig Mum network); she plans every step of her kid’s educational journey and all the extracurricular (studying) activities, attends all the best schools’ open days, organises strategic planning reunions, bullies, lobbies and even bribes private schools and private teachers to skip admission lines if necessary.

Should South Korea’s system be adopted to remedy Western education’s ailments?

The intense pressure to succeed no matter the cost is taking its financial and social toll: as university places are limited, Koreans spend over $18 trillion won (A$20 billion), around 20% of household income to pay for after-school private academies called hakwon. 75% of all children attend a hakwon, mainly at DaeJi Dong, Seoul’s study Mecca.

Research has found that Asian-American students are more likely to have conflicted relationships with their parents over unmet expectations and more self-image issues than white students.

The 2014 Youth Happiness Index found for instance that only 67.6% of Korean youth said they are satisfied with their life (OECD average is 85.8%), mostly because of study pressure.

The conclusion of a 2013 study was that Tiger Parenting (strict parenting, often in Asian cultures) is less effective and more demanding than a supportive parenting environment.

South Korea has one of the highest rates of suicide (28.9%) in the OECD. South Korean novelist Young Ha Kim wrote in an op-ed that suicide is the “No.1 cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 30”.

Korea also ranks among the highest for household debt, depression, divorce, and alcohol consumption. It has been argued South Korean education produces overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness.

Neither does a focus on credentials, tests and entrance exams give South Korean students the skills (like creativity and teamwork) to succeed in higher education or in an increasingly difficult local job market.

So while other countries may envy South Korea’s positions in the league tables, there are cultural factors that mean this focus on hard work probably can’t be replicated elsewhere, and given the societal collateral damage, probably wouldn’t want to.

Further reading on what Australia can learn from education abroad.

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