Cramming for the future, Gangnam-style

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Gangnam is not just a dance, it's a place where intense extra study is the norm

With more than a billion hits on YouTube, the annoyingly infectious song Gangnam Style has propelled South Korean pop star Psy to international fame. But while Ban Ki-moon, general secretary of the United Nations, has called the song a force for world peace, to many fellow Koreans the word "Gangnam" is synonymous with elite education.

Gangnam is an upscale district in the capital city of Seoul that is home to dozens of "cram schools", which nestle between its designer shops and expensive restaurants. Denied a British-style private education sector (such schools are banned in the Republic of Korea) wealthy Koreans head to Gangnam to put their children through hours of extra study to prepare them for ferociously competitive university entrance exams.

The university you attend is incredibly important in South Korea, so a thriving industry centred around cramming for exams has emerged, promising a ticket to the right institution. Daytime school is merely where one catches up on sleep, say test-weary students. The real schooling begins after dusk, and Gangnam is the best place to hothouse your protege.

Of course, the 1 per cent of Seoul residents lucky enough to call themselves Gangnamites have the advantage. They will probably be among South Korea's burgeoning nouveau riche and will think nothing of shelling out the money needed for their child's education. Others scrimp to be able to get their offspring through the doors of the cram schools.

And the schools are feeling the heat. Two cram school teachers were arrested in 2010 for allegedly faxing answers from an exam held in one part of the globe to students waiting to take the exam in a later time zone. One of those caught said he was under pressure to raise students' scores.

This is the same compulsion, perhaps, that has parents sending their children to one of the area's "learning clinics", which are known to prescribe Ritalin and other drugs to help them study for longer.

In Seoul, large numbers of teenagers spend the year after high school attending cram schools full-time as they continue their bid to win a place at a good university. In 2011, the government went so far as to introduce a 10pm curfew at the schools to stop teenagers studying late into the night.

From the outside, the results achieved by pupils in South Korea appear enviable and push them towards the top of international league tables. And as a one-time resident of Gangnam himself, Psy might attest to this highly singular approach to education. Alas, he never finished university, although he seems to have done just fine anyway.

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