Sunday, June 1, 2008

South Koreans spending billions on kids' schooling

South Koreans spending billions on kids' schooling
Jun 02, 2008
The Straits Times

SEOUL - SOUTH Koreans, anxious to ensure their offspring are well- schooled, spend around US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) a year to educate them abroad - equivalent to nearly 20 per cent of the annual amount allocated to education by the government.

At more than 100,000, South Koreans outnumber any other foreign student group in the United States.

The South Koreans see acquiring English-language skills as crucial to survival in a globalised world.

Education Ministry spokesman Park Baeg Beom said: 'The government acknowledges that the lack of English is one of the factors that pull down the competitiveness this country has.'

In the initial enthusiasm after the conservative government won office last December, there were even suggestions that Korean history be taught in English.

Ms Kang Ji Hyun sends her five-year-old child to an English-speaking kindergarten which costs her around US$800 a month for a three-hour day - which is roughly what a South Korean pre-school charges on average.

'People with better English skills tend to have more opportunities in this society,' she said.

It is common to see children, still in school uniform, on the streets and on public transport late at night after attending a round of private lessons - usually including English courses. Often they will be up by dawn for more classes.

The Education Ministry estimates that in terms of percentage of gross domestic product, South Korean parents spend four times more on average on private education - to supplement daytime lessons at state school - than their counterparts in any other major economies.

Everyone seems to agree that the state schooling system, tinkered with for years by successive governments of differing political ideology, falls miserably short of providing the education on which South Korean society places a high premium.

According to a recent study by the Swiss-based International Institute of Management Development - which was widely quoted in local media - South Korean university education is near the bottom in world rankings for meeting the needs of a competitive economy.

But there is little agreement among South Koreans on what must be done to raise education standards.

The current conservative government, which says 10 years of meddling by liberal governments have dumbed down the system, wants to introduce school rankings and competition among teachers and to give universities a freer hand in choosing their students.

But the main teachers union argues that such moves will make matters worse and result in schools focusing on teaching students little beyond ticking the right boxes.

Ms Jeong Jin Hwa, who heads the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union - the country's biggest, favours taking a different approach.

'Instead of having students pick one out of five answers, they could be evaluated by plays, presentations and other ways,' she said. 'We think more creativity needs to be introduced in the classrooms rather than having this emphasis on quantity.'

Some educators say teachers themselves must change.

Mr Moon Yong Lin from Seoul University's education department, who has served briefly as an education minister, urged teachers to accept greater competition as schools hire the best teachers available.


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