Center on International Education Benchmarking

Supports for Pre-Primary Children and Families

Beginning in 2012, the South Korean government has provided free access to early childhood education programs for all children through age five. This include half day preschools (called kindergartens) for three- to five-year-olds and full-day care in childcare facilities. Allowances are also available for families who choose to care for children at home. Enrollment in early childhood education is high and includes more than 90 percent of all students from ages three through five. This rate reflects significant expansion in services since 2005, when only 15 percent of three-year-olds and 30 percent of four-year-olds were enrolled in ECEC. When childcare demand exceeds supply, children in poverty, from low-income families, or of single parents or working mothers have priority.

A number of initiatives provide specific supports for disadvantaged pre-primary age children. The 2008 Support Policy for the Development of Young Children’s Basic Learning Abilities provided for diagnostic tools for early identification of developmental differences and programs to promote cognitive, socio-emotional, and language skills for young children. Services targeting children from diverse families have included Korean language development classes for immigrant mothers, home visits from “hope educators” trained to support child development, and an increase in the number of kindergartens serving primarily multicultural children. Multicultural children in South Korea have one Korean parent and one foreign parent. The “Dream Start” program, operated through the Ministry of Health and Welfare, provides wraparound services – including case management – for disadvantaged children from birth to age twelve.

Supports for At-Risk Primary and Secondary Students

The Ministry of Education distributes need-based education subsidies, referred to as equalizing grants, to local education offices to compensate for differences in local income and resources. In addition to these subsidies, the Ministry provides extra services and support for specific populations of disadvantaged students, including those from low-income and/or immigrant families, students living in rural areas, students with mental illnesses, and students who have defected from North Korea.

Students from low-income families have access to vouchers for extracurricular activity fees and special university scholarships. The government also provides Child Development Accounts for children in the child welfare system or in families receiving welfare benefits. The government matches deposits families or other child sponsors – including individuals or businesses – make in these accounts, up to a monthly limit. Funds can be accessed to pay for education or vocational training, among other purposes. In addition, there are also both incentives and requirements for teachers to work in schools with high proportions of students from low-income families. Incentives include smaller class sizes, higher salaries, reduced instructional time, credit toward future promotions, and a choice of the location of a future teaching position. The Ministry also requires periodic rotation of public school teachers, which can include reassignment of teachers to meet schools’ needs.

Students with conditions such as ADHD or depression have access to services through the Wee (We+Education+Emotion) Project. There is a focus on early identification and intervention: students in many schools are screened for learning disabilities and mental health issues yearly, and the number of schools in which this service is available is expanding.

Students from immigrant families and from North Korea have access to targeted counseling and welfare services, and the government has instituted a “Global Bridge” program for multicultural students. As mentioned earlier, children with one Korean parent and one foreign parent are referred to as multicultural in South Korea. This program, which selects 100 multicultural students to participate, is intended to provide connections between South Korea and these students’ home countries. The Ministry of Education 2017 Support Plan for Multicultural Education details additional strategies for supporting students from diverse backgrounds in schools. Planned supports include: mentorship from university students able to speak students’ first languages, Korean language and culture classes, curriculum development in areas such as foreign language or “global citizenship education,” improved career education and counseling, relevant teacher training in teacher preparation programs and in-service professional development, and increased support for Local Centers for Multicultural Education to facilitate coordination among community organizations.

The government has also aimed to curb household spending on education, including widespread private tutoring, a source of income-based inequality. Efforts have included setting a curfew for hagwon, or cram school, operating hours in 2009 and passing The Act on the Normalisation of Public Education Prohibiting Pre-Studying and the Measures on the Reduction of Private Tutoring and Normalisation of Public Education in 2014. The proportion of education spending from private sources declined by nearly one-quarter in South Korea from 2008 to 2013.

Supports for Struggling Students

South Korea has implemented supports for students who struggle academically to encourage them to remain in school. Students considering dropping out of school must first complete a mandatory waiting period, during which they receive increased levels of support. This policy is credited with helping to reduce the number of students dropping out of school by 17 percent from 2013 to 2014. In 2016, the Ministry announced a plan to expand access to alternative education classes by nearly 10 percent and improve collaboration across the Ministries of Education, Gender Equality & Family, Health & Welfare, and Employment & Labor to support students who have dropped out of school. This support focuses on helping students access alternative education to secure a secondary school diploma and employment.

Special Education

The Ministry of Education also requires that there be at least one special school in each province to serve the South Korean students who need special education, estimated to be only about one percent of the student population. 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. This program created additional jobs for special needs teachers in mainstream schools and expanded professional development for mainstream teachers to prepare them to work with students with special needs.

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