History of Education in South Korea

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Classroom of Korean School
© Sanga Park | Dreamstime - Classroom of Korean old school in Cheonggyecheon shack museum

South Korea is considered to be a country with one of the best education systems in the world. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), South Korea takes leading positions in mathematics, science, and reading literacy. It is interesting to know that even former American President, Barack Obama, praised South Korean system of education saying that the United States needs to catch up the system created in this western country. So why education system in South Korea is so successful?

Historial Influences on Education

The geographical position of Korea was the reason for 400 years of isolation from outside contacts. Since 1873, the neighbor of Korea, Japan, made its gradual way to take control over the country. The goal was completed in 1910. As the result, Korea became a colony of Japan and was made to conform to the Japanese’s colonial administration. It was autocratic, it was systemic, and it brought numbers of ethnic Japanese in order to occupy key niches in such spheres as civil service, educational system, business, and industry.

During the time of the Japanese rigid control of Korea, ethnic Japanese and ethnic Koreans had separate education systems. It is worth to mention that Koreans were restricted from secondary education and regardless of the system; all subjects were taught by Japanese instructors in Japanese. That was the key factor that helped ethnic Koreans to realize that in order to be qualified and regain the independence after the failure of independent movement in 1919, they have to get access to the modern education. Though Japanese tried hard to restrict Koreans from education, they managed to get it. What is more, they demanded more, starting from elementary school access to access in tertiary education.

It was 1945 when 72 years of occupation finally ended. Japanese left Korea. However, the system of education in the country was totally broken. As Japanese restricted Koreans from getting an education, there was a huge gap in trained manpower in the country even after it finally gained independence. The literacy rate was 78% and there were nearly no trained specialists able to teach new students.

History of Education in South Korea
© Jackbluee | Dreamstime — Ancient Korean’s life displayed at the Folk Museum of Seoul, South Korea.

Educational Changes

The Japanese left Korea in the multi-tiered, social segregation system, so in 1949  the Basic Education Law was implemented to unify the education system. As the result, Koreans got 6 years of compulsory education, 3 years of non-compulsory middle school and 3 more years of non-compulsory high school.

As the result of Japanese occupation that was associated with restrictions on education, Koreans were so hungry for knowledge that they did not saw the difference between compulsory and non-compulsory schools. They wanted to learn as much as they could. Their strive for knowledge began exactly at that period of time. So between 1949 and 1953, the education system in Korea saw the rapid increase in the number of students who were enrolled in middle and high schools. It is worth to mention that there were no regulations, so any student could enter a school even if there were no more space. This resulted in the overwhelming of schools and that is why the government decided on the implementation of comprehensive examinations needed to enter middle school or high school. Also, the implemented comprehensive examination meant that schools with limited seats were able to ensure the quality of the students.

In 1963, due to increasing number of students entering high school, it was decided to reintroduce vocational high schools. As the result, the Korean education system started to work as a tracking one, so pupils were able to attain certain skills from vocational schools.

 In 1969, in order to make education more accessible, the middle school entrance exam was abolished. Even today South Korea uses the same education model that consists of 9 years of compulsory education and entrance exams are only for high school. Also, there is an exit examination used for university admission.

English school South Korea
© Sebastian Czapnik | Dreamstime – Young students at a private English language school in South Korea. Children are divided into small groups and taught by native English speakers with help of fluent Koreans.

Correlations between History, Culture, and Education

The history of education in South Korea started with Confucianism. It is not a secret that for a long period of time Korean culture and philosophies were influenced by the Chinese Confucius school of thought. Actually, you can feel that influence even today, but in smaller portions. Education always played a huge role in Korean’s society. Though it was always important to be educated in this country, education was not provided for everyone. It was accessible only to the elite as society was highly hierarchical. What is more, workers of that time had no necessity to get an education based on the Chinese Confucius school of thought that was emphasized on memorization and recitation.

Everything changed in 1873 when Japanese occupation led to changes in societal structure and educational structure. As teaching was provided only by the Japanese instructors, methods of teaching and the curriculum were also Japanese. But even when the occupants left the country, the system they imposed partly remained. For example, it was the Japanese who brought some classroom culture that includes cleaning the classroom by the students, that still remains today in Korea.

Though Japanese occupation was not good for the country, it helped Koreans to realize the importance of education and the importance to have access to education. So the access to the general public was opened and that was one of the first steps to the Reformation of Korean Republic.

After the Japanese occupation, the access to education in Korea was a key element that helped in developing society focused on productivity of the country. Increasing literacy rate helped Koreans to more efficient societal changes and increasing accessibility to education helped to widen the number of educated people to support the future of the county.

The past of South Korea made Koreas believe that more education leads to more available options in future. No matter the cost, Korean parents do their best to provide their children with most of their education. This belief exists even today and that is probably why the system of education in Korea is so successful.