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Moves to relieve the burden of the young

SOUTH KOREA. Pupils at South Korea's elementary schools are enjoying "bag-free" days as part of their nation's attempt to reduce academic pressures on young people.

Many schools are already designating homework-free days, when schoolbags can be left at home, and textbooks left at school, so that pupils have more time to enjoy leisure and family activities.

Supporters of the bag-free day say the excessive competition for places at top schools and universities means that even primary school pupils are being burdened with three or four hours of homework a night.

Confucian principles, including self-discipline, aspiration and willpower, remain strong in what is one of the world's most education-obsessed countries.

With a population of 40 million, South Korea has more than two hundred universities and junior colleges and 150 graduate schools.

In addition, tens of thousands of South Korean students are studying at foreign universities while teachers and lecturers regularly take part in overseas study tours to increase their knowledge of the subjects they teach.

High standards of education have helped to virtually eliminate illiteracy and make South Korea one of the world's most literate nations. South Korean pupils regularly outperform pupils from other countries in cross-national comparisons of academic attainment.

High standards of literacy and numeracy have also been credited with helping South Korea achieve its impressive economic progress and prosperity.

But, as with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea's other East Asian neighbours, there are fears that workaholic pupils are spending too much time in front of books.

A growing number of parents are concerned that excessive academic pressures are the cause of the stress-related illnesses and emotional disorders which are becoming more common among young South Koreans.

Such pressures, parents argue, are depriving young people of their childhoods.

Entrance exams for many high schools have already been abolished and politicians are looking at ways of reducing the influence of private cramming schools which many pupils attend during evenings and weekends.

Critics of the private tuition industry say the bag-free days will simply result in additional business for the crammers.

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