View from here - 'Education City' bids to boost pupils' Korea prospects

17th September 2010 at 01:00
South Korea - The island of Jeju is to up the country's elite-school ante by housing 9,000 students - with all lessons in English

The balmy isle of Jeju, perched alongside South Korea and the islands of Japan, has historically billed itself as a palm tree-filled holiday resort. But it is now attempting to catapult itself in to an altogether different market as "an education hub for the world".

The ideals of the Global Education City - which plans to host up to 9,000 students, from kindergarten through to university level - are certainly not lacking in ambition.

Housing up to 12 elementary, middle and high schools, and a university zone, the idea is to make all instruction in English with the exception of classes in Korean language and Korean history.

The independent North London Collegiate School is already signed up to opening a campus.

The scheme has its roots in South Korea's desire for fluent English, elite schooling and foreign brands. Parents have even been known to pay for citizenships in foreign countries so they can qualify as foreign residents and send their children to prestigious international schools in South Korea.

A government survey carried out last year suggested that almost half of South Korean parents wanted to educate their children abroad. There is a strong feeling that the teaching of English, in particular, is not good enough in South Korean schools.

The capital Seoul hopes that projects such as that at Jeju will help to cut the practice of shipping Mum and the kids off to an Anglophone nation for guaranteed English proficiency. It could also mean the end of so-called "geese fathers" that only fly to see the wife and children during winter and summer holidays.

The first schools on Jeju should be ready to accept students from 2011, with the project fully up and running by 2015. Fees are expected to be about half those that parents pay to send their children to schools abroad.

Christopher Bogden, the scheme's project manager, told a South Korean newspaper: "The intent is to educate all the children in these schools in English, to create an immersion environment for them, even when they're outside the classroom. The English language will fuse everything happening here, educationally, commercially and residentially."

But critics from the vast and lucrative English as an additional language (EAL) industry in South Korea are not convinced that the billion-dollar project will succeed.

There are already numerous "English villages", some even complete with fibreglass replicas of Stonehenge, that exist in South Korea, where only native English-speaking teachers immerse children in their culture and language. With such competition already in existence, doubts have been raised whether this new project will thrive.

As one Jeju island blogger has put it: "Korean English teachers have a difficult time teaching in English. Just how in the hell are (other Korean teachers) supposed to teach core subjects in English?"

But the backers of the project hope that it will attract pupils not only from South Korea, but throughout the world including nearby China and Japan.

Any edge for pupils in highly competitive South Korea is likely to be attractive to considerable numbers of parents. The sad fact is that many children brought up abroad find themselves squeezed out of job opportunities when they return home because they have gone "too native" or have poor Korean language skills.

The project kicking off in Jeju might go some way to addressing those problems. But perhaps it is time the South Korean government also considers why so many people are keen to opt out of the national system in the first place. If those issues can be addressed, grand plans such as the Global Education City might not be necessary in the first place.

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