Preprimary & Primary Education
Preschool: Early childhood education in South Korea is designed for the national interest—that is, not only to prepare young children to become healthy and intelligent citizens, but also to protect the welfare of poor children and of working mothers, whose number has increased with rapid industrialization (Yoo 156ff).
Early childhood education has developed partly from the nursery system, the structure of which is entwined with welfare policy. The nursery system was established in 1952 and in 1962 put under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Welfare in accordance with the Act for Infant Welfare. During the Fifth Republic in the early 1980s, the Integrated Plan for Infant/Early Childhood Education was developed as part of a national agenda to enhance the image of a "Welfare State." The new Act for Infant/Early Childhood Education in fact stipulated that infant and early childhood education facilities in South Korea be made up of kindergarten under the jurisdiction of MOE and the New Village Nursery under the Ministry of Interior. It is also important to note that infant education via nursery facilities was instituted, in the wake of Korea's full-scale industrialization, for the relief of working mothers. Hence the wealthier classes have chosen mostly private kindergartens and preschools and the poorer classes, mostly the government-run nurseries, such as the Children's House and New Village Nursery.
Kindergarten education is not subsidized and depends on private resources. The ratio between private and public kindergartens is 7 to 3. Preschool education, a rather recent phenomenon, has mostly been initiated by religious, social, and private organizations. Because it is often considered inessential, the preschool enrollment rate has generally been low. In an effort to raise enrollment, the government has enacted legislative bases for preschool education, such as the Kindergarten Facilities Standard Ordinance (1969), Kindergarten Curriculum Ordinance (1969), Preschool Promotion Act (1982), and the first and second Promotion Plans for Preschool Education. To raise the level of preschool education to that of other advanced nations, the government has also developed and disseminated teaching materials and tools and created teacher training and administrative support systems.
The number of preschoolers increased dramatically in recent years. In 1980, there were only 901 kindergartens with 60,665 children attending them or only 7.3 percent of 5 year olds. The number of kindergartens grew almost tenfold to 8,828 by 1999 with 535,379 children (43.2 percent of 5 year olds) attending. MOE projects enrollment will reach 100 percent by 2005.
Elementary School: Primary education has been compulsory since 1945 but free only since 1979. At age six (or earlier, by choice), children must enter a primary school near their residence; they then automatically advance to the next grade each year. An accelerated grade advancement system was recently introduced to allow a gifted and talented child to skip a grade.
The curriculum is focused on nine subjects: Korean language, mathematics, science, physical education, social studies, moral education, music, fine arts, and practical arts. As part of a globalization policy adopted by the government of President Kim Young Sam, MOE made an important innovation in Korean elementary education. Since 1997, English has been taught two hours a week in elementary schools, beginning with the third grade.
In the 1970s and 1980s—amid rapid industrialization—the school-age population was heavily concentrated in urban areas, while rural schools became underpopulated. Overcrowded classes caused some city schools to resort to the double shift system, which was considered a major setback.
The government imposed an education tax in 1982 to improve school finances and raise teacher pay. As a result, the number of elementary school students per class has dropped to 35.8 in 2000, compared with 62.1 in 1970. In 2000, the student to teacher ratio in elementary schools was 28.7 compared with 56.9 in 1970 (KEDI).
By the late 1960s, primary school enrollment rates reached practically 100 percent and stayed there. In 1945, the year of liberation, elementary schools numbered 2,807 with the total enrollment at 1,570,000. As of 1999, elementary and branch schools numbered 5,544 and 739, respectively, with a total enrollment of 3,935,000. Thus, while the number of schools doubled, the enrollment rate of the relevant cohort rose from 64 percent in 1945 to almost 100 percent in 1999 (MOE 2000).
Middle School: The program is divided into compulsory subjects, elective subjects, and extracurricular activities. Basic required courses consist of moral education, Korean language, mathematics, social studies, science, physical education, music, fine arts, home economics, technology and industry, and English. Elective subjects include Chinese characters and classics, computer science, environmental studies, and others.
Since 1995, native speakers have been hired to teach English in middle schools in an effort to enhance English acquisition and prepare students for the "Age of Globalization."
As of 2000, average class size remained large at 38, but had hugely improved over 1970, when there were 62 per class (KEDI).
In 1969 entrance examinations by individual middle schools were abolished and all applicants have been assigned to schools near their residence by lottery in an effort to democratize secondary education. Before then, middle schools had clearly been ranked. A person's eventual elite status was guaranteed upon his or her admission to a top-ranked middle school such as Kyônggi Boys' or Kyônggi Girls' Middle School in Seoul. The school bond continues to be so strong and prestigious that, even decades after abolition of the middle school entrance examination, an older person's worth is measured by the secondary school he or she attended.
By 1998, almost 100 percent of elementary school graduates went on to middle schools. As of 1999, middle school students, usually ages 12 to 15, numbered 1,896,956—an increase of 2,347 percent from 80,828 in 1945. The number of middle school teachers increased even more dramatically from 1,186 in 1945 to 93,244 in 1999—a 7,862 percent increase (MOE 2000, 34).
Despite the superficially democratic appearance, the current situation gives advantage to those students residing in affluent areas over those who live in poorer areas or rural districts. For example, there still exists a Kyônggi Girls' Middle and High School, and it is still considered a first-rate school. However, while the former Kyônggi Girls' School admitted students based on a strict entrance examination open to candidates from the whole nation, students today are there thanks to the economic status that allows their families to reside in that particular locality.
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