Children between the ages of six and 15 are required to attend school in South Korea. There are six years of primary school, three years of lower secondary school and three years of upper secondary school, which is either academic or vocational. South Korea offers free half-day public preschools (called kindergartens) for three- to five-year olds. This was only introduced in 2012-13. Parents can also send their children to private preschools. Participation in early childhood education is high, with enrollment rates exceeding 90 percent among three-, four-, and five-year-old children.
Most students attend their local primary school. Since the 1970s, South Korea has had an equalization policy in place, which aims to reduce competition for admission to prestigious secondary schools. Students in “equalization zones” are admitted to school by lottery. These zones cover all lower secondary schools and about 60 percent of upper secondary schools. In these areas, there is no entrance exam for lower secondary school, and upper secondary school entrance exams are minimum competency exams rather than competitive school-based exams. Students who meet the minimum standards on the exams are admitted to the schools by lottery. Some parents have perceived these reforms as a lowering of standards. A set of alternative upper secondary schools — specialty schools and autonomous schools — has developed partially in response. Specialty schools focus on a particular area, such as foreign language, science or the arts, and autonomous schools adhere to the national curriculum but have flexibility to design their instructional program. Both types of schools set their own entry criteria and are generally more competitive than other upper secondary schools.
Ninety-five percent of students complete upper secondary school in South Korea. About 80 percent of these students attend academic upper secondary schools, and about 20 percent attend vocational schools. This represents a significant decline in the percent of the student population in vocational schools, as about 40 percent of students attended vocational schools as of the late 1990s.
Standards and Curriculum
South Korean schools follow a national curriculum framework developed by the Ministry of Education. The national curriculum is revised every five to 10 years. The latest revision, introduced in 2015, is being phased in over several years and will be fully implemented by 2020. The new curriculum added six general key competencies as well as key competencies specific to each subject area. Both general and subject-specific competencies reflect 21st century skills; for example, creative thinking is a general competency, while the ability to analyze and interpret historical materials is a history-specific competency. Schools also have the autonomy to add content to the curriculum to address the specific needs of their schools. The curriculum for both primary and secondary school also includes Creative Experiential Learning (CEL) activities, which are hands-on activities such as participation in clubs, volunteering, and career exploration. An hour per week of career exploration is required in lower secondary schools.
In primary school, students in grades one and two are instructed in Korean language and mathematics, as well in subjects called: “Good Life,” “Wise Life,” and “Happy Life.” These subjects focus on the transition to school life and include basic study skills, problem-solving, creativity, and learning through play. Science, social studies/moral education, English, physical education, and music and the arts are added for the upper grades.
In lower secondary school, subjects include: Korean language, social studies/moral education, mathematics, science/information technology, physical education, English, music and the arts, as well as some elective courses. Students also have an “Exam-Free Semester.” Introduced in 2013, the semester gives students time each day to study either a non-traditional course or to design their own independent study course. During this semester, there are no traditional paper examinations even for regular classes so as not to distract from the non-traditional activities.
Required subjects in academic upper secondary schools include Korean; mathematics; English; Korean history; social studies; science; science exploration and experiments; physical education; arts; and electives including technology, home economics, Chinese characters, a second foreign language, and liberal arts. Vocational school students take about 40 percent general subjects and 60 percent vocational subjects, in addition to elective courses. Year one is a common set of academic courses, year two is a combination of academic and vocational courses, and year three includes specialized vocational courses. South Korea is modernizing the vocational schools by developing national standards for these programs and by partnering with specific growing industry areas, such as semiconductor engineering, to develop new programs for these industries.
A very high proportion of students in South Korea attend hagwons, which are afterschool/weekend tutoring programs sometimes called “cram schools.” The government is concerned about the number of hours students spend in hagwons and the stresses and inequities they introduce as not all parents can afford to pay tuition for these schools. As part of an effort to reduce the role of the hagwons, they have increased support for school-based extracurricular activities and academic tutoring in an effort to provide alternatives. They have also imposed restrictions on the hagwons, such as operating hours and curfews.
Assessment and Qualifications
Students are assessed at all levels using school-based tests, not national assessments. The national curriculum framework specifies that school-based assessment should focus on complex tasks, such as essays, rather than multiple choice questions.
South Korea has a system of assessments called the National Assessment of Educational Achievement (NAEA). Each year, tests in Korean, mathematics, and English are administered to all students in grades nine and 11, and tests in science and social studies are administered to a sample of students in grade nine. These tests are not reported by individual student. Results are used to provide additional support for schools as needed and to inform policy at the Ministry level.
Students from either academic or vocational upper secondary schools who want to continue to junior college, polytechnic college or university must take a College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). Students who want to go to university have to do very well on the CSAT. To prepare for this test, most South Korean students take prep classes outside of school, including classes at hagwons and private tutoring providers. Recent reforms, such as the University Entrance Simplification Policy of 2013, have focused on broadening the range of criteria considered in university admissions as part of an effort to reduce the intense focus on the CSAT. In addition, South Korea made the CSAT optional for entry to some colleges and universities for students coming from the workforce as part of an effort to encourage students to try work before going directly to higher education. With about 70 percent of students completing some form of post-secondary education, South Korea has the highest post-secondary education completion rate in the OECD.
The Structure of South Korea’s Education System