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A hard lesson in long-termism

For the 64 teachers of Dae-key High School on Cheju Island, off Korea's beautiful south coast, it has been a difficult 12 months. As if having to take a 10 per cent pay cut isn't bad enough, in real terms they are around 30 per cent worse off than they were a year ago. This is the effect the stock market crash is having on families throughout South Korea.

Teachers, in common with the rest of Korean society, have been asked to make big sacrifices as part of the government's strategy for restructuring its economy and paying off debt to the International Monetary Fund. But the fallout from the country's financial crisis does not stop there. For Dae-key High, a private school that nevertheless depends on the government for 70 per cent of its revenue, it also means cutting running costs by a quarter. Plans to improve computer facilities have been shelved.

For the school's 1,100 students, the immediate effect on their life chances will be small. More than eight in ten can expect to go on to four-year academic courses at university, while the rest will take up places studying for two-year vocational degrees. Dae-key sends more students to Seoul National University - the country's most prestigious institution - than any other school in the land. Despite the school's enviable record, Kim Yoon Soo, the principal, is worried. Because of the crisis, the promise of extra money to finance Korea's ambitious education reform programme, designed to place more emphasis on developing students' creativity and thinking skills, is at risk.

"In the past, as a developing country, we have not had enough money and have had to concentrate on the economy," he says. "Now, having become better off, we were supposed to concentrate on creativity. But the IMF situation means that the increase in funds for education is not available and that is a very real worry."

The reforms, begun under the last government of Kim Young Sam, aimed to "break with the present emphasis on rote memorisation for fragmentary information and shift towards fostering creativity". The changes follow widespread recognition that the country's much-vaunted education system was in urgent need of overhaul.

Built from scratch after the civil war, it has, in less than half a century, evolved to produce one of the world's most literate and numerate workforces. More than 60 per cent of high school graduates now stay on in higher education, of which two in three take four-year academic degrees. The rest study for two-year vocational degrees at junior college, producing middle-level technicians, who form the backbone of South Korea's formidable manufacturing effort.

This success is based on a highly selective, traditional system based on whole-class teaching, with students obliged to work long hours in order to obtain places in the best high schools and universities. Because of the premium placed on a good education in Korea's Confucian society, passing exams has become a national obsession, with parents spending vast amounts on sending their children to private "crammers" to supplement their schooling.

In doing so, they hope to get their children into the best high schools and, ultimately, the top universities. For a whole generation of Koreans, this route has virtually guaranteed a good job for life.

But if its schools and universities lead the world in developing basic skills, South Korea trails behind when it comes to advanced skills, research and innovation. Despite the huge competition to obtain a place, Seoul National University is not listed among the world's top 500 universities. While Britain can boast something like 90 Nobel prizewinners,South Korea has failed to produce any.

This problem is compounded by the unwanted effects of economic success. Four decades of phenomenal expansion, based on manufacturing, have brought not just higher living standards, but also rising labour costs. Even before its current crisis, Korea was being forced to look beyond its traditional manufacturing strengths for new sources of income. The worldwide explosion in information and communications technology, which has brought enormous advantages to the United States and other advanced Western countries in the last decade, has left Koreans desperate to produce their own Bill Gates. "Korea is good at reproducing and developing but, because of our education system, we are not good at creating. That is why we need qualitative reforms," says Kwak Byong-Sung, president of the influential Korean Educational Development Institute. "Our system is based too much on memorising facts, rather than recognising and developing skills. We need to develop a system whereby our young people can take control."

At school level, sweeping changes to the curriculum and teaching methods are being introduced. Written exams for university entrance were scrapped last year in the hope of reducing the time students spend on routine memorisation (hence the need for private crammers). University admissions are now based largely on students' high school records, although a general aptitude test is still administered. The new government of Kim Dae-jung, having eagerly embraced the reforms introduced by his predecessor, Kim Young Sam, is now embarking on further radical changes. Under consideration are a more flexible school-leaving qualification, modelled partly on British A-levels and GNVQs (their vocational equivalent), more specialist high schools, restructuring universities to build strong specialist departments able to compete in the field of international research and more practical degree courses, with more emphasis on problem-solving and development of skills.

But Kim Dae-jung has the unenviable task of pressing ahead with reforms at a time when his country has been forced into sharp retrenchment. Kim Young Sam, his predecessor as president, increased spending on education as a proportion of the country's gross domestic product from 3.8 per cent to 5 per cent, funding cuts in class size and extra books and computers. These gains are now are at risk.

The new government has already postponed a scheme to give every teacher their own personal computer by 2000. Plans to phase in further class size reductions, with the aim of reaching or getting below the level of advanced countries, are also expected to be dropped.

For the teachers of Dae-key High School, that means having to accept change without the hoped-for benefits. Kim Yoon Soo, the principal, is, not surprisingly, worried that too many changes will be introduced too quickly. But he is nevertheless a strong supporter of reform and optimistic that, over the next two or three years, his country's financial problems will be overcome, enabling it to refocus its priorities. "Education is the most important priority and we should have realised that long ago. Korea put the economy first after the Korean war, but now we have realised our mistake and education is being put first."

The economic crisis has increased awareness that priorities must change. A country that had grown accustomed to success and stable employment is now having to adjust to a world in which the ability to innovate and adapt to change is paramount. Korea's need for people with flexible skills, able to adjust to changing circumstances, has never been higher.

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