View from here - Rebel and expect to be arrested

1st January 2010 at 00:00
South Korean union members who opposed national tests got a visit from the law. It is just one flaw in a broken system, says Michael Fitzpatrick

Whenever their latest initiative is publicly ripped apart by the teachers' unions, British education ministers must wish they had the powers of their counterparts in South Korea.

Same democratic institutions, same high-profile portfolios but with one important benefit denied the wimps of Whitehall - the power to fire, arrest and imprison teachers and teacher union leaders should they even attempt to criticise government policy.

For so revered is the sacred cow of education in South Korea that a special law was passed many years ago to ensure teachers - who are considered almost priest-like in Korea's mass religion of "educationism" - never sully their hands with politics.

It is not just the country's teachers who are affected. Seoul has recently extended that law to all civil servants and there is even talk of the hordes of ex-pat English teachers being liable to the same laws of treason.

For now, however, the government's ire has been directed at the rabid left-wingers of the Korea Teacher's Union (KTU). The law limits the union's political activities to fighting to improve teachers' working conditions.

So when it organised protests against education reforms in the summer, it soon saw its offices being raided by police. Riot police also arrested the union's leader and 15 other members, and although the teachers were later released without charge, several faced the sack.

The activists were criticising the government's plans to introduce a set of national standardised tests - tests not too dissimilar to the ones that rebellious primary heads in England are threatening to boycott next year.

The tests are part of a batch of education reforms by South Korea's right-wing government designed to encourage school autonomy and competition. Talented children will be able to attend specially designated schools, and headteachers are being promised the freedom to set their own agenda. Given the concerns about over-testing in the UK, British teachers may sympathise with the arrested Korean activists.

But critics of the KTU say they brought it upon themselves and that their members, who number several thousand, are interested only in realising their far-left socialist ideals. An argument could be made that teacher union activists should take some of the blame for the fact South Korea's pupils are the most stressed in the world.

The teachers' egalitarian ideals have led them to refuse to set and stream pupils in state schools. This has encouraged parents to pay for the country's booming after-school crammers. Some pupils now have almost no free time at all.

Surprised that South Korea's schools have such problems? You are not alone. Even President Obama thinks the Korean system is something to emulate because kids attend more classes than America counterparts.

Many have no idea just how dysfunctional the whole of the country's education system is - and they may never find out, if riot police are used to silence the teachers who criticise it.

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