Center on International Education Benchmarking

Student Support Systems

In South Korea, the Education Ministry provides extra services and support for certain populations of students, including those from low-income and/or multicultural families, students with mental illnesses and students who have defected from North Korea. The government is in the process of expanding mentoring, counseling, welfare and complementary education services for students in need from these populations, and extending these services to their parents.

Students from low-income families have access to vouchers for extracurricular activity fees and special university scholarships. In 2008, the South Korean government piloted the “Head Start” program for preschool students from migrant families. The program works with young students to improve language ability, cognitive ability, social skills and emotional stability so they can start elementary school on even footing with their classmates. There are also several incentives for teachers to work in schools with high proportions of students from low-income families. These include smaller class sizes, higher salaries, reduced instructional time, credit towards future promotions and a choice of the location of a future teaching position. As a result of these incentives, OECD has found that students from low-income families are more likely than students from high-income families to by taught by high quality teachers, as measured by level of certification, education and training and years of experience.

Students with conditions such as ADHD or depression have access to consultation and therapy through the Wee (We+Education+Emotion) Project. There is a focus on early identification and intervention; students in many schools are screened yearly, and the number of schools in which this service is available is expanding. For students whose conditions do not allow them to attend mainstream schools, the government is in the process of establishing an “Alternative Autonomous School” focused on character-based education, as well as an Air and Correspondence High School for students who cannot attend school in person.

Students from multicultural families and from North Korea have access to counseling and welfare services, and the government has instituted a “Global Bridge” program for multicultural students. This program selects 100 multicultural students to participate, which is intended to provide connections between South Korea and these students’ home countries.

The Ministry of Education also requires that there be at least one special school in each province to serve the estimated 2.4% of South Korean students who need special education. The majority of special schools are comprehensive, serving students of all ages with severe handicaps. Students with mild to moderate special needs are encouraged to remain in the mainstream schools, either enrolled in special classes within the school, or in a combination of special and mainstream classes according to ability. In 2007, the Ministry of Education instituted a program intended to integrate special needs education into mainstream education as much as possible. Central components of this program were the creation of more jobs for special needs teachers in mainstream schools and professional development for mainstream teachers to prepare them to work with students with special needs. Currently, the Ministry is in the process of expanding compulsory special needs education to children as young as four, upgrading vocational opportunities for teenage special needs students and establishing special needs support groups in colleges.

Low-Performing Schools

South Korea’s performance disparity among schools is 31.6%, which is comparable to the OECD average of 33%. However, this disparity is not explained by students’ socioeconomic status; differing economic backgrounds account for only 3.6% of the performance gap. The story is not the same for schools with different socioeconomic statuses, however: a school’s socioeconomic conditions account for 51.3% of student performance disparity. Although the Ministry of Education distributes funding to local education offices equitably, this funding is then often distributed inequitably among schools. Furthermore, student fees –  essentially, “parent funding” – are not equal across schools, resulting in some schools having a great deal more money than others, and consequently more resources. South Korea is moving towards a less-centralized system of funding and greater school autonomy, hoping that schools will be able to address their weaknesses with more managerial freedom, because they will be able to allocate funding where it is needed.


PISA 2015: Variation in Science Performance Explained by Socioeconomic Background

SouthKoreaScienceVariation2016Source: OECD

Most of South Korea’s policies to close educational achievement gaps are focused on helping low-performing students rather than schools. However, one innovation undertaken by the Ministry was the 2010 decision to target violence in schools. This plan includes education for children between the ages of three and twelve on the topics of violence prevention, the introduction of CCTV cameras in schools, special counseling centers for students affected by school violence and the publication of schools’ school violence records. In schools with a high percentage of underprivileged students, the Ministry started the “Notice Service for Child Safety” in 2010. This service sends a text message to parents when their child arrives and departs from school. The Ministry intends to have this service available in all elementary schools in 2012.

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