Speak English, child! This is Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s “wild geese fathers” manage a reunion with their children, and often wives, just once a year after seeing them off for study abroad, invariably to learn in English.

A mother (R) besides her daughter consults with an employee of an overseas study agency at 'Early Study Abroad and English Camp Fair 2008' in Seoul, May 25, 2008. So anxious are South Koreans to make sure their offspring are well schooled, they spend around 5 billion dollars a year to educate them abroad -- equivalent to nearly 20 percent of the total amount the government allocates a year on education. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

They are, contends a new government zealous to reform, symptomatic of a damaged state education system that forces parents to throw money at private tuition and prevents Asia’s fourth-largest economy from leaping to the world’s top league.

“The government acknowledges that the lack of English is one of the factors that pulls down the competitiveness this country has,” said Education Ministry spokesman Park Baeg-beom.

In the initial enthusiasm after the conservative government won office in December, there were even suggestions of teaching Korean history in English.

At least one major South Korean company requires company communication to be in English.

South Koreans, anxious to ensure their offspring are well-schooled, spend around $5 billion dollars a year to educate them abroad -- equivalent to nearly 20 percent of the annual total allocated to education by the government.

At more than 100,000, South Koreans outnumber any other foreign student group in the United States.

And the spending at home on private education -- mostly to supplement daytime lessons at state school -- dwarfs that of most other countries.


It is common to see children, still in school uniform, in the streets and on public transport late at night after a round of private lessons. Often they will be up by dawn for more.

The Education Ministry estimates that as a percentage of GDP, South Korean parents spend four times more on average on private education than their counterparts in any other major economy.

Everyone seems to agree that the state schooling system, tinkered with for years by successive governments of differing political ideology, falls miserably short of providing the education on which South Korean society places such a high premium.

There is less agreement on what to do about it.

“The collapse of (confidence in the) public education has led to a dependence on private education and that in turn has created more indifference towards the public system,” said Park.

“The fundamental issue is the fact that most people here believe academic achievement determines everything in their lives. There’s a cultural perception that academic ranking will make or break their marriage and career.”

Such is the obsession with qualifications that at the annual college entrance exams, the military grounds flights for the day and many offices start late so students on their way to the exam hall are not delayed by the normal rush-hour traffic.

But according to a recent study by the Swiss-based International Institute of Management Development which was widely quoted in local media, the value of all this effort is questionable.

According to media reports, it ranked South Korean university education near the bottom of the class in world rankings for meeting the needs of a competitive economy.

The new conservative government, which says 10 years of meddling by liberal governments has helped dumb down the system, wants to introduce school rankings, competition among teachers and to give universities a freer hand in choosing their students.

That, the main teachers union argues, will simply make matters worse and remove any vestiges of a broad education beyond being able to tick the right boxes.

“The students might as well be chained to their seats,” said Jeong Jin-hwa, who heads the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union, the country’s biggest.

She favors a different approach.

“Instead of having them pick one out of five answers, they could be evaluated by plays, presentations and others way,” she said. “We think more creativity needs to be introduced in the classrooms rather than having this emphasis on quantity.”

But some educators say teachers themselves must change.

“Many parents leave the Korean school system out of disappointment,” said Moon Yong-lin, at the Seoul University’s education department who served briefly as an education minister.

“The teachers are the key to solving the problem. If the teachers change, things will come back to normal in no time,” he said, urging them to accept greater competition.

For the moment, parents are voting with their bank accounts, pumping more and more money to ensuring that their little ones have a chance of rising to the top of the educational ladder and a secure place in society.

Kang Ji-hyun sends her five-year-old to an English speaking kindergarten which costs around $800 dollars a month for a three-hour day, which is fairly average cost for a pre-schooler.

“English is a huge plus for most people who work in Korea. People with better English skills tend to have more opportunities in this society and also have more time to invest their time in other activities.”

Additional reporting by Lee Ji-yeon; Editing by Keiron Henderson and Megan Goldin