Danger: schools on brink of overheating

Seoul is worried that its rapid rise as a world trading power has resulted in a hothouse atmosphere in education. Jeremy Sutcliffe reports

Yong Ok Pak wants to start a revolution. Not with guns or tanks, of course; this is the new Korea, where democracy has finally taken root. But she wants change and she wants it now.

In many respects Mrs Yong is lucky. She has a fine, intelligent teenage son, Kyo Hahn, who - being born in America - is also known as Brian. Brian speaks good English, is creative and spends a good deal of his leisure time with a private tutor, learning to play the haegum, a traditional two-stringed Korean instrument. Mrs Yong's great worry, a concern shared by countless parents in South Korea, is that her son will burn out, another victim of Korea's highly competitive education system.

In a country where a good education is highly prized, and getting into the right school and the right university is essential to a good career, fear of failure is endemic. "The worry," she says, "is that students spend all their energy in studying to get to university and do not have any energy left when they get there I The system needs changing, but I'm not a politician and I don't know how. " Mrs Yong's anxiety is shared by many parents, rich and poor. It is caused by what was recognised, in a seminal government report published two years ago, as an "overzealous enthusiasm for education I a burning passion" which is in danger of overheating.

South Korea's education system, started from scratch less than 50 years ago, and one of the pillars on which the country's phenomenal economic growth has been built, is in danger of blowing a fuse. It is struggling to cope with the bewildering pace of social and economic change. And it is under pressure from the growing expectations and demands of parents, business leaders and politicians.

This may come as a surprise to British teachers, who have grown accustomed to reading about the educational successes of Pacific Rim countries. Comparative international studies show Korea is a world leader when it comes to basic maths and science tests. And there's no doubt that its schools' success in producing a highly literate and numerate workforce has been an important factor in the country's economic development.

There are a number of reasons for that success. The first is cultural. Traditional Confucian values - respect for authority, hard work, the importance of scholarship as a means of self-improvement - are deep-rooted, so parents and pupils are highly motivated and show a high degree of commitment to learning and respect for their teachers. Since the turn of the century, Korea has undergone a series of upheavals, leading to fundamental social and economic changes. Four decades of Japanese colonisation was followed by the devastation of the Second World War and the civil war, leaving the country in ruins. Following the examples of Japan and West Germany, the Koreans turned adversity to advantage, with a restructured economy relying heavily on human resources - and a new education system modelled onAmerican lines.

The transformation from a largely illiterate country in 1945, when 78 per cent of the adult population was unable to read or write, to today's literacy rate of 96 per cent is impressive. Enrolment to primary schools (now compulsory) has trebled, while virtually all pupils stay on at school until the age of 18. More than 60 per cent of high-school graduates stay on in higher education, of which two-thirds pursue traditional four-year degrees. The rest take two-year technical degrees at junior colleges, producing middle-level technicians who form the backbone of Korea's manufacturing effort.

But this phenomenal growth has come at a price. The state of many school buildings is poor, with spending on resources and textbooks limited. Class sizes in high schools (16 to 19) average 50, while the average for middle schools (11 to 16) is 46. Even in primary schools, where there have been big reductions in recent years, the average is 35, with classes of more than 40 in urban areas still the norm.

The rapid growth in the number of students wanting to stay on at high school and university has made competition for places intense. The effect on the curriculum has also been enormous, with schools under pressure to prepare pupils exclusively for high school and university entrance tests. This, in turn, has pressurised parents to spend large sums of money paying for private after-school tuition. With parents already forced to pay part of their children's school fees, the average urban family is spending almost a tenth of its income on school and tuition fees on top of the money it pays in taxes. While public spending per head on education is just 3.8 per cent (low by the standards of developed countries), total expenditure on education rises to 11 per cent once parental topping up is taken into account.

Large classes, dependency on the textbook and the pressure of university exams, have meant that teaching methods remain highly traditional. The emphasis is on rote-learning, rather than on understanding and the application of knowledge. This concentration on the basics, supported by long hours of cramming with private tutors, has produced formidable results in maths and science tests up to the age of 13, but the performance of older pupils is less impressive.

As a team of English school inspectors noted, after a visit to Korea in 1993, results for pupils at the age of 14 were closer to the international average. By the age of 17, performance in physics, chemistry and biology was lower than average, and behind that of England.

While Koreans are justifiably proud of their educational achievements, they are now clamouring for change. Increased affluence, the development of democracy and greater personal freedom, have all brought demands for an emphasis on quality, diversity and choice. Excessive competition for university places has produced a stressed-out generation of teenagers who, if they make it to college, are sometimes unprepared for higher learning. Those who fail to get into college often leave school with little to show for their education.

An independent commission, set up by President Kim Young Sam, has been working on reforms. It wants to relieve students of the so-called exam hell and excessive out-of-school lessons. And it wants changes to enable "future generations to lead productive lives in an information-intensive society".

In the commission's first report, published two years ago, it spoke of the need to "break with the present emphasis on rote memorisation for fragmentary information and shift towards fostering creativity". The government has since agreed to increase spending per head on education to 5 per cent of gross domestic product by next year, and is planning radical curriculum and teaching reforms to develop creativity and self-directed learning skills. This year, written exams for university entrance were abolished, with admissions based on students' high-school records and their involvement in extra-mural activities. As a result of the extra cash injection, class sizes continue to be cut. Soon Korean primary children will be taught in classes comparable to those in British schools. Whole-class teaching is already being gradually replaced by group work in some lessons and there are plans for middle and high schools to follow suit. The aim is to nurture self-directed learning, creativity and critical thinking. There is an irony here.

Just as Korea and other Pacific Rim countries are abandoning some of their tried and tested teaching methods and looking to Western models to produce a new generation of creators and innovators, the UK and other Western countries are trying to learn from them. Will we benefit by going "back to basics", something politicians and many opinion formers believe we have neglected? Or are we simply taking up something which our oriental competitors have identified as holding back their development?

The likely answer is that educational no less than economic systems will increasingly converge. If present trends continue, South Korea's economy will soon take its country to Japanese levels of affluence. Class sizes may well drop below those of Britain. Teaching styles and school structures will become much like those in Britain and the United States.

Will standards rise further? Or will they drop? Traditionalists may be fearful that, as Korean pupils cease to concentrate on simple tests in the 3Rs and science, their grasp of the basics will weaken. A more liberal education is likely to be a force for accelerating social change. In a conservative society, where women are still seen primarily as home-makers, how will the prospect of girls' achievement outstripping boys be received? What will be the impact on school life of a curriculum that encourages individualism and scepticism? Koreans, however, are betting that Confucianism, which has survived for two and a half millenia, will see them through.

Perhaps those with most to worry about are Korea's overseas competitors. It's no accident that Korean business leaders are among those leading the clamour for a system that can produce a more inquiring, diverse, flexible workforce. When it comes to technical development and teamwork, Korean businesses lead the world. But in the field of invention, innovation and design they are often lacking. The new education reforms could, in time, change all that.

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