Last year, we looked into what made Finland’s education system so successful. In the latest in our Experimental Education series, we take a look at another world leader: South Korea
South Korea’s schools are amongst the most successful on the planet. But despite high achieving pupils, the South Korean education system still renders controversy. In some respects, their education system could be likened to a pressure cooker — with high-intensity schooling from an early age.
Despite this, there could still be some lessons that we can take from South Korea. After all, one of the most successful school systems on the planet must be doing something right.
At first glance, the biggest difference between South Korea and the UK is culture. From politics to food, social norms to language, day-to-day life in South Korea has few similarities to life in the UK. Their education system follows the same trend.
One thing’s for sure, education is taken very seriously in South Korea. Whilst in the UK, we’re introducing more play into the curriculum, education in South Korea is almost exclusively work-focused. It is not uncommon for Korean high school students to work more hours than their parents.
Private education is also a big part of Korean culture, with a big proportion of secondary education students seeking further learning outside of the classroom in order to come out on top in the race for success.
This may sound scary to a UK audience. But in South Korea, students regularly rank higher than they do in the UK. In the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, the UK ranks 15th in the world overall. On the grand scheme of things, this isn’t so bad. We still, however, fall some way behind South Korea.
The share of top performers in science, reading and mathematics in Korea is 25.6%, compared to just 16.9% in the UK.
Aside from gruelling hours, is there anything else that we can learn from the South Korea education system? In this article, we’ll take in everything from private schools to suicide rates to fully understand South Korea’s unique education system.
Just how good are South Korean students?
In a 2012 BBC News report, six regular South Korean students aged 16 finished a GCSE maths paper in half the allocated time. Four achieved a 100% score, the other two lost just one mark. Whilst this is too small a study to draw any real, meaningful conclusions, the fact that just 3.6% of English pupils in 2018 achieved the highest grade 9, suggests that there is an obvious achievement gap here.
Are cultural differences too vast to learn from South Korea?
As a teacher in the UK, teaching methods employed in South Korean schools seem austere. A throwback to a bygone age perhaps. Rather than the inclusive learning that happens in UK classrooms, South Korean lessons are focused on the teacher speaking, and the students listening and taking notes. Compared to the UK, the South Korean system is far more authoritarian.
This is in part down to the respect teachers hold in Korean society. In South Korea, the saying is “teachers are as high as God.” Few teachers in the UK will have heard anything close to this level of appreciation.
Whilst teachers salaries in the UK are relatively comfortable, they still don’t rank in the top 10 in the world for both primary and secondary level. South Korea offers the third highest salary package for primary school teachers and the fourth highest for secondary school.
We saw similar trends when we undertook our investigation into the Finnish education system. The more teachers are paid, the more respect they seem to have in society, the more successful the education system. There are some exceptions, the US for example, but every other top 10 paying nation on earth ranks higher than the UK for education quality.
Could and should we implement a Korean style education system?
Aside from teacher’s pay, there are still questions that need answering, especially those surrounding the possibility of implementing a South Korea style system in the UK. In 2016, the BBC reported on three Welsh teenagers who swapped their school life in Wales for lessons in South Korea’s capital Seoul. What they found was eye-opening.
From classes that start before 8 am in the morning, to gendered schools and classrooms, the students struggled with the high intensity of teaching methods.
In the UK, we encourage students to ask questions, especially if they are struggling to comprehend a concept or task. In South Korea, however, lessons move at the same pace regardless of whether a student understands the lesson or not. And that pace is rapid.
This is why despite lessons finishing at 4 pm, many students in South Korea take education a step further, going to after-school classes known as hagwons. In some cases, students are known to carry on working until midnight.
Likewise, whilst Saturday and Sunday are rest days in the UK, South Korean students often continue their education in hagwons, or through individual learning at public libraries.
Competition is high in a country with little natural resources. People are its core product, and they count on school graduates and higher education leavers to be amongst the brightest in the world.
There is little doubt that UK students would not be able to adjust quickly to such a gruelling environment. Most teaching professionals wouldn’t want it this way either, nor would parents. We certainly wouldn’t encourage such a shift either.
What else is different about South Korean schools?
In the UK, we try to make sure that our students look after the schools they inhabit. Graffiti is discouraged, litter is picked up, but we are still some way behind South Korea. And this is perhaps one area where UK schools could adopt similar principles to engender respect within pupils for the teaching environment.
From mopping floors to litter duty, South Korean students are taught to take responsibility for their own environment. Teachers have respect in South Korean culture, but so does the school itself. Forced labour? Perhaps not. The heavy lifting is still undertaken by caretakers, as it is in the UK, but students are encouraged to do their bit too.
Teachers rotate schools, whether they want to or not
After four years working in a single school, you are likely to have formed close bonds with other teachers, pupils and the physical building itself. But in South Korea, whether you like your working environment or not, you are forced to move school.
Every five years, teachers, deputy heads and headteachers are entered into a lottery system and have to change schools. Because of this, every year a school is likely to receive new staff. This could be interpreted in two ways. First, it’s a destabilising influence on what should be a consistent environment. Second, it keeps things fresh.
The biggest impact is that it’s hard for struggling schools to find themselves behind the highest achievers. Whether it be physical education or foreign languages, with rotation, a school will at some point in the cycle find itself with quality teachers and supporting staff.
Model Schools, the highest achievers, in South Korean society aren’t closed off to the rest of the school community. Teachers are actively encouraged to go and learn from the best. For students, learning is a serious business, but it is equally important for teachers too.
Whilst it would be difficult to implement such a programme in the UK, it is a system that not only improves teaching for every student in society, wherever they happen to live, it also allows teachers to develop and fulfil their potential.
The controversies surrounding South Korea’s education system
Whilst some laud the success of South Korea’s schools, it’s far from an ideal system. As you may have already deciphered, those long hours don’t always have such a great effect on student wellbeing.
Depression and mental fatigue are common across Korean society. Not only in schools but across almost every sector. Competitiveness breeds impressive results. Since WWII, South Korea has been one of the fastest growing nations on earth. But it has its consequences.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any OECD nation. It is the fourth most common cause of death in South Korean society. It is the only OECD nation where suicide rates have increased since the 1990s. South Korea may produce the brightest pupils, the best smartphones and high-quality cars, but it is not without cost.
For people at school age specifically, suicides numbers are shocking. With many students spending up to 16 hours a day in a learning environment, it’s of little wonder. For children aged between 10-16, South Korea has the highest number of suicides anywhere in the world.
With intense pressure on exceptional final exam results which are needed to get into the nation’s best universities, anxiety and stress are also a major issue. There are some lessons that the UK can perhaps take from such a system.
Are there any learnings we can take from South Korea?
Whilst student achievements speak for themselves, learning from South Korea should go two ways. First, we should consider the impact of heaping pressure on final exams. With the rise of after-school teaching sessions in the UK, is it a sign we are moving closer to the South Korean model? And is this a direction we want to travel in?
Second, there are definitely some aspects of South Korea’s education system which could potentially have a positive impact if implemented in the UK. Increased teacher pay, for example, would give current UK teachers a better standing within society. Long term, it would also encourage the brightest university students to consider a career in teaching, which could potentially solve the teacher shortage crisis.
The rotation of teachers is also an interesting concept. Today, teachers rarely spend their entire careers in a single school. Certainly less than they used to decades ago. However, looking at South Korea, this may not always be such a bad thing. We are still some way from the South Korea model, however, with some distance between the best and worst schools in society.
Ultimately, the South Korean education system may provide results, but like the UK’s, it has its flaws. We can learn from the way their system works, but it’s not something we should lift and shift to the UK. What works in South Korea (arguably high suicide rates suggest, in fact, that it doesn’t) won’t work directly on our shores.
But what is becoming clear as we delve into experimental education across the globe, there are definitely things we can learn from each other.