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South Korea - Secondary Education

school students schools middle

Middle school graduates or those with an equivalent academic background, usually about age 15, are admitted to high schools. Students bear the expenses of their high school education, which lasts three years.

Traditionally, entrance examinations to individual high schools for most students were largely symbolic, as a middle school and high school carrying the same name were in effect a single entity sharing a single campus. Examinations were extremely challenging only for those who tried to move upward into a better-rated high school. The progress of a middle school graduate to high school was more the function of parents' financial ability.

Entrance examinations by individual high schools were abolished in 1974. Instead, admission was based on middle school grade point average (GPA) and records and on the scores on the national qualifying or "selection" examination, established in order to limit the number of high school students.

While successful applicants for general high schools are assigned to a school by a lottery system, applicants to vocational high schools compete based on the school's own examination or the student's middle school record.

In actuality, however, the national selection examination has lately become meaningless, because the size of the group entering high school has been decreasing, thus no one is turned away from high school. In 1999, about 99.4 percent of middle school graduates advanced to high school, compared with 90.7 percent in 1985 (KNSO 61). The number of high school students, usually ages 15 to 18, in 1999 was 2,251,140, an increase of 5,590 percent over their total of 40,271 in 1951. (High school teachers numbered 105,304 in 1999 compared with 1,720 in 1951—an increase of 6,122 percent.)

Since 1995, high schools have been able to consider many factors besides selection examination scores in admissions. A new phenomenon for private schools is their right to self-governance, which allows for operation and maintenance by a school foundation and by student tuition and fees. Since 1998, private schools, if they so desire, have been given the right to set tuition and select students themselves; in such a case they would lose their customary government subsidy (MOE 2000, 62). Since 1998, some cities or provinces have started to admit new high school students based simply on their Middle School Activities Records. Students are also to have much greater opportunities in selecting their schools.

The Education Law stipulates that high schools must furnish both general and specific education to middle schoolers. Article 105 establishes these objectives:

  • To educate students to be equipped with fine character and competence expected of good citizens by continuing to provide general education.
  • To improve students' capacity to understand and form sound judgments on social and political issues.
  • To promote students' awareness of national missions, to seek to improve physical conditions of the students, to help them choose future life courses appropriate for themselves as individuals, to heighten the level of their culture, and to increase their professional skills.

First year students in high schools must all take identical courses, but from the second year students take electives as well as requirements. They choose from four different tracks, according to their abilities, interests, and future career plans: humanities, social science, natural sciences, and vocational training. Common compulsory courses for high school students are ethics, Korean language and literature, basic mathematics, social studies, history, basic science, physical education, music, fine arts, and English. Electives include Chinese and Korean classics, foreign languages, non-basic mathematics, non-basic science, ancient civilization, philosophy, ethics, logic, psychology, education, economics, religion, environmental science, drama, and dancing. Among general high schools, several specialized institutions concentrate on particular areas, such as foreign languages, science, and physical education.

High school enrollment increased almost fourfold from 590,382 in 1970 to 2,251,140 in 1999. As of 1997, there were 764 vocational high schools with 868,395 students. In 1998, there were 1,085 general high schools with 1.4 million students. Of middle school graduates, 98 percent advanced to high school in 1997.


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