School for all children between the ages of six and fifteen is free. Senior high schools, for students aged fifteen to eighteen, do charge tuition fees in order to supplement government funding, but these fees do not appear burdensome enough to prevent students from attending. School funding is very centralized, with local school systems deriving 80% of their revenue from the central Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) budget. The local systems are also funded to a much smaller degree through revenue transferred from local governing bodies, internal assets, locally issued bonds, school admission fees and tuition. The Metropolitan and Provincial Offices of Education can spend the money from MEST as they see fit, though it is a matter of funds being transferred to a lower level of the same overall organization rather than an intergovernmental transfer of funds. The central ministry directly funds teachers’ salaries in elementary and lower secondary school as well as preschool programs.
Private schools receive a small amount of government funding and subsidies, but are primarily financed through tuition fees and support from private donors and organizations. South Korea spends $7,652 per student, as compared to the OECD average of $8,868. However, this represents 7.6% of South Korea’s GDP spent on education, as compared to the OECD average of 6.1%. This is the third-highest percent of GDP spent on education among OECD countries, after Iceland and Denmark.
School Management and Organization
The South Korean government has historically been very centralized, and the education system reflects this. The structure of education governance is very similar to other Korean government operations, with major initiatives produced and funded by a central office and carried out by lower, regional offshoots of the central office. 180 Regional Offices of Education report to sixteen Metropolitan and Provincial Offices of Education, who in turn report to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST). All metropolitan, municipal/regional and provincial offices of education must take general policy direction from MEST, but can make budgetary and hiring decisions for their respective regions. In recent years, there have been attempts to decentralize the system somewhat and allow more decision-making at the school level. Each school has its own school council with some degree of autonomy in terms of promoting teachers or arranging professional development, but this is still fairly limited.
The Ministry of Education leaves the majority of the budget planning process and administrative decisions to the municipal and provincial education offices. Local school boards are elected positions, although they are apolitical and more than 50% of board members are required by law to have at least ten years of experience in education.
Accountability and Incentive Systems
Schools are evaluated annually by external monitoring groups established by the provincial education offices. They complete school inspections based on a Ministry of Education evaluation plan, which sets directions and standards. School evaluations review teaching and learning practices, curriculum and student needs.The Ministry of Education has recently added school-based performance awards in which top-performing schools receive bonuses. School reviews are not used punitively; rather, struggling schools are given administrative advice about how to improve. The results of school evaluations are reported publicly.
Teachers are evaluated by their principals although the principal does not have the power to directly reward or punish teachers based on their evaluations. There are, however, incentives for high performance. One major incentive is the designation of “Master Teacher,” which entitles effective, seasoned teachers to a small monthly stipend in addition to their normal salary. Additional incentives include bonuses and study abroad opportunities.
Annual Expenditure by Educational Institutions per Student for All Services
(2011, in equivalent USD converted using PPPs for GDP, by level of education, public institutions only) Source: OECD
Parent and Community Participation
South Korea has always valued parent involvement in education. Currently, parents have access to parent groups, which meet regularly and serve as a liaison between parents and the schools. In the past two years, MEST has unveiled a new set of initiatives, to expand parents’ role in and access to their child’s education. These initiatives range from school monitoring programs, in which parents can get a clear sense of what is happening in their child’s school, to parents’ training programs and support centers. All of these programs are intended to encourage parents to understand their child’s progress, be aware of their school resources and get involved by volunteering or becoming a part of a parents’ group.
Parents have also traditionally had a big impact on the direction of their child’s education through their choice to pay for hagwons (cram schools), tutors, school fees, extracurricular activities and other educational costs. South Koreans tend to spend much more of their personal income on education and education products than in many other countries, with some figures suggesting that it is as much as 15% of the GNP, and up to 22% of household income. There is a clear emphasis on learning the English language, and parents seem particularly willing to invest in English-language tutoring and classes.