Children between the ages of six and fifteen are required to attend school in South Korea. There are six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school and three years of senior high school. Students typically attend their local elementary and junior high schools; they do not have a great deal of school choice until the end of compulsory education, which is at the end of junior high school.
Following junior high school, students may choose to enter senior high school, which is classified as either general/academic, vocational/technical or specialist/special purpose. Admission to senior high school differs across school systems. Some systems are designated “equalization areas” (these include the major metropolitan areas of Seoul, Busan, Daegu and Gwangju), and use a computer lottery system to place students. Schools in other regions admit students based on their academic records and school-administered and -developed entrance examinations.
General/academic high schools provide advanced general education as well as elective courses, which students select based on their intended university course. A select set of general/academic high schools have been classified by the government as “special purpose schools;” these schools offer more specialized curriculum (for example, in science or foreign languages) and have greater autonomy. Students gain entrance to these schools through a lottery system, and about 10% of students who attend academic high school in Korea attend a special purpose school.
Vocational/technical high schools provide students with the education needed to enter a specific profession, and are often focused on one occupational area, (for example, agriculture, technology, commerce and fishery), although comprehensive vocational/technical schools do exist. Vocational high school applicants select their school of choice and are admitted based either on that school’s entrance exam or their junior high school grades. At the end of vocational high school, students receive a Vocational High School Certificate.
Specialist schools are for elite students in a variety of fields: the arts and music, athletics, foreign language and the sciences. These schools are intended to identify future leaders in these fields and to nurture their talents. Students must apply for admission to these schools. Exact numbers about which pathways students choose are not available, although the OECD reports that 97% of students complete high school in South Korea. The majority of these students attend general/academic schools, and about 30% attend vocational schools.
South Korean schools are provided a national curriculum framework developed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST). This framework is revised every five to ten years and in addition to subject content also specifies the amount of time to be spent on each subject per school year. Although each school must teach the curriculum that MEST provides, superintendents have the autonomy to add content and standards to address the needs of their schools.
At the elementary level, students are instructed in the following core subjects: ethics, Korean language, mathematics, science, social studies, PE, music and the arts. Elementary schools, in addition to providing basic instruction in core subjects, are also supposed to instill their students with basic problem-solving abilities, appreciation of tradition and culture, love for neighbors and country, and basic life habits.
In lower secondary school, there is a differentiated curriculum, or ability-based grouping, for some subjects, including mathematics, English, Korean language, social studies and science. Core subjects which are not differentiated are moral education, PE, music, fine arts and practical arts. In addition to the core subjects, lower secondary school students take extracurricular and optional courses, including home economics and technology, which until recently were gender-based classes. Optional courses include foreign languages, computer and information technology and environmental education.
In general/academic senior secondary school, the core subjects remain the same as in junior high school, although students are now offered specialized classes in science and social studies, which are divided into physics, chemistry, biology and earth science, and into geography, history, politics, economics and cultural studies, respectively. Students can elect their subjects within these broader groups. Specialist schools and vocational schools have their own curricula related to their fields of study, although they do require students to complete some courses in general subjects.
South Korea has a system of diagnostic assessments called the National Assessment of Educational Achievement (NAEA). Each year, achievement tests in two subjects are administered to all students in each of the grades six, nine and ten. These tests serve a purely informational purpose and are not reported by individual student.
Students are also regularly assessed by their teachers at all levels, and they receive “Student School Records” or “Student Activity Records” which provide detailed information about their academic performance. These records include information on academic achievement by subject, attendance, extra-curricular and service involvement, special accomplishments, conduct and moral development, physical development, details of awards and anecdotal performance descriptions. These records are increasingly used as measures of student performance for admission at both the senior secondary and university level, in order to alleviate the examination-based pressure felt by many South Korean students.
Students in South Korea’s school systems that are designated “equalization areas” are admitted to senior high school based on a lottery system, and so do not face a high-stakes examination until the end of senior high school. Students in other parts of South Korea are required to take a school-administered entrance examination as part of the admissions process to senior high school. However, they are also assessed on the basis of their junior high school performance, so the test is less high-stakes than was previously the case.
Following senior high school, students who want to continue to university must take a College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), which does have a major impact on their higher education prospects. Leading up to this test, most South Korean students will engage in some form of directed study outside of school, ranging from classes at hagwons, or cram schools, to private tutoring sessions. There is a culture of “examination hell” in South Korea, and students often feel incredible amounts of pressure about their performance on the CSAT.
Once they reach age fifteen, South Korean students attend school on average 1020 hours a year. This is higher than the OECD average of 902 hours a year, and does not account for additional time spent in extra classes, with private tutors and in hagwons. Some estimates put the average total amount of time spent in school or studying as high as fourteen hours a day, five days a week, though other measures are more tempered; an OECD study indicates that overall, Korean students study, on average, an additional three hours a day compared to their counterparts in any of the other OECD countries. They also sleep an hour less compared to students in the US, the UK, Sweden, Finland and Germany and exercise 22 minutes less. Korean class sizes are also larger, on average, than in other OECD countries. Elementary school classes tend to enroll 28.6 students and lower secondary school classes enroll, on average, 35.3 students. These are both significantly larger than the OECD averages of 21.4 and 23.5, respectively.
The Structure of South Korea’s Education System
In elementary school, students are usually grouped by age. However, in recent years, there has been a rise in experimental ability-based grouping. Teachers are encouraged to place children in small groups and then give them problems that they will be able to solve together, rather than relying on whole-class teaching. Individual schools also began using the “open classroom” method of teaching several years ago, in which teachers reduce direct instruction and integrate multiple subject areas into group or individual projects. This method gained traction after success in independent schools, and is now used by many public schools in South Korea, with government support.
At the secondary level, instruction still remains fairly traditional, as teachers are concerned with preparing students for university entrance exams. Students are grouped by age, rather than ability, although there has been an introduction of ability-based grouping in some junior and senior high schools in the past decade. The ministry encourages instructors to use active participation methods in their teaching, including engaging students in science experiments, group discussions, and surveys. There is also a strong emphasis on integrating technology into the classroom.
The Ministry of Education has tried to reform upper secondary school instruction to some degree, encouraging teachers to incorporate inquiry-based learning and problem solving. Technology continues to be very important. However, there is still a high degree of examination preparation. The vast majority of South Korean high school students also seek further examination preparation outside of school, in hagwons, with private tutors, or through increasingly popular online courses.
Students proceed from elementary school to junior high school through a lottery system. Following junior high school, students are admitted to senior high school in a variety of ways. Depending on the school district, entrance to senior high school depends either on a lottery system or on a combination of school-administered tests and student performance records. Graduation from high school is based on students successfully completing the required number of credit-bearing courses, and upon graduation students receive the General High School Diploma or, in the case of vocational high schools, the Vocational High School Diploma.
University admission is predicated on a student’s performance on the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), for which students begin studying years ahead of time. On the day of this test each year, the government reschedules the workday so that students are not exposed to traffic on their way to the test, police monitor noise in the streets, and military exercises are paused. Each Korean university has its own admission standards and selectivity rate, and students who do not perform well on the CSAT are able to attend junior colleges or less-selective four-year colleges. About 85% of Korean students go on to some form of higher education.