Where the quest for As means no Zs
It's nearly 8pm on a cold winter night in Bundang, a wealthy new dormitory suburb of Seoul, South Korea. Almost anywhere else in the world, pupils would have finished formal lessons hours ago.
But in an office block on the edge of a garish neon-bathed shopping mall, rows of teenagers are sitting attentively, books open. They arrived at their daytime schools nearly 12 hours ago. But they still have at least two hours of intensive study ahead of them before they can rest.
Their classroom is a brightly lit box - there are no windows. For most of the year, there is no daylight when lessons are taking place anyway. But even if there were, letting it in would risk distraction. There is cramming to be done and everything in this hagwon - a Korean supplementary school - is geared towards making it happen. Harsh strip lighting and the microphone used by teacher Sunny Jeon are aimed at keeping her exhausted students on task and awake.
"Students are very, very tired when they get here," she explains. "So one of the most important qualities of teachers here is not to let them sleep. You have to be lively, funny and active - everything!"
There isn't much laughter in the lesson that TESS sits in on, though - just Jeon barking extracts from an English textbook into her headset microphone. But it works. No one falls asleep.
This is the reality of life inside the Bundang branch of the Do Your Best (DYB) chain of hagwon. And it is just the tip of a vast, multi-billion-pound industry. There is at least one other hagwon in the same building and just around the corner is another tower block full of them. In fact, there are hagwon all over South Korea. Affluent urban areas like Bundang and the famous Gangnam district of Seoul have the greatest concentrations, but they exist in poorer rural areas as well.
There are hagwon for everything: piano hagwon, several different kinds of maths hagwon and many, like DYB, that offer English lessons. There are hagwon for elementary students and hagwon serving children who go to middle and high schools.
They are not about entertainment, making children happy or even giving them a good, all-round education. Many exist for a single purpose: to get pupils to pass exams with the highest possible marks. Sheets and sheets of student test scores are exhibited under glass in their lobbies as proof of their success.
To understand why hagwon exist you need to understand Korean society and the rigidly hierarchical education system that shapes it. The importance of good grades kicks in from the early teens, as middle-school students prepare for exams that could gain them entrance to the best high schools, or at least let them avoid the ignominy of a vocational school.
From then on, what has been termed "education fever" only intensifies as preparation for the all-important national university entrance exam begins. The suneung, to give it its proper name, is a very big deal in South Korea. On the day that it is taken, planes are re-routed or grounded and public demonstrations are suspended, to avoid any risk of distracting candidates.
The results, in what is effectively a one-shot test, determine which university students can attend. And, given the country's well-established higher education pecking order, the university you graduate from will determine your prospects for the rest of your life. Good exam and test scores are crucial and hagwon are seen as the best way of achieving them.
A factory-style system
In Incheon, a city on another side of Seoul's vast sprawl, TESS asks a class of 18-year-old high-school students how many of them have attended a hagwon. Of the 37 pupils, only four do not put up their hands. They gasp in amazement when told that there are no hagwon in the UK.
"What do pupils do after school?" one girl asks. The entire class is open-mouthed when they hear that their English counterparts have time to watch television and enjoy themselves after school, as well as completing homework.
Their teacher, Hyunsu Hwang, says that his students' lessons run from 8.20am until 4.30pm, but many will stay on at school as late as 10pm for extra study. Even then they are still not finished. A minibus will take them on to their hagwon where they will continue studying, sometimes until 1am.
Other students will leave high school as soon as formal lessons finish and go straight to the hagwon. Studying for at least 14 hours a day is the norm, particularly for final-year students. "Going to a hagwon is not an obligation but it is one of the main aspects of student life in Korea," Hwang says.
An official in the left-wing Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, he is contemptuous of the teaching that these private after-school institutions offer. "A hagwon is like a factory," he says. "It is not for learning. The main purpose is to make students choose the right answer in tests. They are very test-focused."
His unease about the Korean predilection for out-of-school private education is shared across the political spectrum. The authorities have been trying to crack down on the phenomenon for decades.
Former president Chun Doo-hwan made private tuition, or kwa-oe, illegal in 1980 in one of his first acts after taking power. In the late 1970s, as the country boomed, spending on education was taking an ever-greater share of household budgets. The leader felt this promoted inequality and was unfair to the poor.
But according to Michael Seth, author of Education Fever: society, politics and the pursuit of schooling in South Korea, the president's ban only drove after-school tuition underground. After an initial decline, the number of secret lessons began to grow. University students working as tutors would dress up as high-school pupils to avoid suspicion when teaching in private homes. By 1990, the ban had been relaxed and the private tuition industry really began to grow.
After 1991, when the government first allowed such tuition to take place in government-approved hagwon, the focus shifted from individual tutors towards a more organised model. Since then, several government crackdowns have been attempted on everything from the fees that hagwon charge to false advertising. Official curfews were introduced from 2009, set as early as 10pm to prevent students studying late into the night. But according to Hwang, it's still commonplace for students to stay on into the early morning.
In October 2013, South Korea's education minister at the time, Seo Nam-soo, admitted that "still the craze for private tuition is high". He claimed that government policies to curb the hagwon through online broadcasts of lessons from "talented lecturers" were starting to bear fruit.
But such initiatives deal with the symptoms of the problem rather than its cause. The Chinese Confucian influence in Korean culture encourages the idea that exam success can offer anyone a route to the top. But attending the country's most prestigious high schools and universities remains crucial to making it a reality, and those places are strictly limited, so it is, as Nam-soo conceded, a "zero-sum game". Families are prepared to do everything possible to give their children an edge in securing admission to a prestigious institution. And many hagwon are designed to do exactly that.
The ultimate teaching to the test
Sunny Jeon is regarded as a star teacher at DYB Bundang, but the section of the English grammar lesson that TESS sits in on would appal many members of her profession. There is no interaction between teacher and pupil. Instead, Jeon ploughs through a textbook translating sentences from Korean into English, while students follow by running their fingers along their own copies.
These books contain extracts of literature, rather than full works, Jeon says. But they are at the heart of what the hagwon does. "For the university [entrance test] we have certain books published by our government," she explains. "The exam is based on these books. We teach the students these texts in detail. The government will change the question, of course. The context or the paragraph will be the same but the question will be changed. So we are preparing [students] for that change to the question."
It is, in other words, the ultimate teaching to the test. But, within those narrow terms, the hagwon approach does seem to work.
Jay Yon manages a residential centre in Seoul offering students a very different, immersive approach to learning English. But as a teenager in the city in the late 1990s, he attended a hagwon for 10 years.
"You just listened to the teachers and looked at the textbook," he remembers. "Was it enjoyable? Honestly, no. The class was really boring, just nothing, just staying and sitting on the chair for five or six hours after school."
However, asked if it helped him to learn, he admits: "This was cramming education. It was better than nothing."
And that's exactly the point - as long as there is any advantage to attending, or even the perception of an advantage, places will be snapped up by parents and their children. They have to keep up; they can't afford not to. South Korea's test-based school system has forced its population into an educational arms race that no one feels able to opt out of.
The critical mass attending hagwon also create an additional draw, alongside the desire for better results. Children are not in the playgrounds so hagwon are the only place they will meet friends.
"There is a social pressure to go to hagwon," Hwang says. "My own kids don't attend because I know the character of hagwon. They are just killing time for the kids. They are not an efficient way of learning. But because all my kids' friends go, there is a pressure. They ask to go as well."
Yon remembers much of his teenage social life revolving around his hagwon. "You can meet good friends," he says. "You have a small community - just 10 or 15 kids in one small classroom. And you have a breaktime, which you can enjoy with them. Also, the hagwon teachers are more friendly than in public schools."
The Korean emphasis on test scores has created such a distorted educational dystopia that in many ways it is now the hagwon where the main action takes place. Many students fall asleep in class at their daytime schools, exhausted from their long hours of study the night before. They save their energy for the hagwon that they will return to afterwards. Because, despite Hwang's protestations, it is this drilling that is seen as the most effective way of improving results.
That perception is essential for hagwon because, like their students, they operate in an incredibly competitive environment. In many ways, they trade in fear.
A member of staff at an international school in Seoul, who wished to remain anonymous, told TESS: "Once a child is allocated to a middle school, especially the selective ones, hagwon somehow acquire the phone number of parents and text them: `Come and register for the mid-term exam preparation course - or you will miss out.' "
But after frightening anxious parents into enrolling, a hagwon must then produce results. As Tom Stockwell, a teacher from England who taught in one for more than three years, says: "Hagwon are, at the most basic level, businesses, and to keep their business going, students need to be achieving top scores in tests at their state schools and showing clear improvement."
That creates its own burden for hagwon staff - and it is not just their ability that is considered important. According to one former hagwon owner: "From a business perspective, hiring beautiful people makes more sense."
Canadian Robert Altan, another hagwon veteran, describes teaching in them as "stressful" and "very, very competitive".
"There are more eyes on you in a hagwon," he says. "The owner is always there and always aware because it is such a small environment, such a small space. They are very precise about where they want you to be. Because if the parents are not happy they will soon call."
"It is tough," Jeon admits. "Some teachers have to go out of this business because if they are very calm, peaceful characters they will not handle the children who are really exhausted."
TESS is lucky to be able to see inside a hagwon at all. Numerous attempts to arrange visits in advance were rebuffed by a variety of schools. It is only after turning up at several hagwon unannounced, accompanied by a very persuasive interpreter, that a brief look around and interview at DYB are secured. The reluctance to allow access to journalists is understandable. Hagwon already have a terrible image problem and are wary of further media attention.
And it is not just people within the hagwon industry who are unwilling to talk publicly about it. When TESS asked a leading Korean education reformer about them, they said they were more concerned about what went on in mainstream schools.
But to ignore this vast private system is to ignore the beating heart of education in South Korea. And as long as the country's obsession with test results continues, that unfortunate truth is unlikely to change.
How to succeed in the hagwon business
A former hagwon owner TES has been in contact with has blogged anonymously about his experiences. In these extracts, he sheds light on the worst excesses of the industry, describing some of the tactics his competitors use.
} "Ultimately, teaching English is teaching English.First and foremost, know how to sell the idea of teaching that mothers are looking for."
} "Blow your results into the biggest possible proportion. If one little kid wins even a class competition somewhat related to English, make sure everyone knows you made it happen."
} "Do not loosen your grip on the kids, even at home. Mothers will love you if you can pile up tons of homework on top of their daily schedule of sitting in your classroom."
} "Make sure the parents are informed at the click of a button on their kids' stellar performance. Sow no doubts about your effectiveness, but do keep parents afraid of the future: if their children do not achieve A, B and C by X time, they will miss out on the gravy-train!"
Read more at bit.lyHagwonBlog