In stark contrast to the daily bashing British schools receive, from both the media and from Ofsted, South Korea is a picture of perfection in education. In maths and science, for instance, South Korean schools are regularly in the top three globally- if not number one. They’re regularly joined by other East Asian countries like Japan and Singapore.

But why? What is it about education in these countries and the policies of these countries that boosts them all the way to the top? And what can we do to bring about this sort of success in the UK? Read on to find out what can and what can’t be done.

The South Korean system is just as much about extra-curricular education as it is about learning during school hours

What we have to remember is that South Korean schools are just the tip of the iceberg. In South Korea, if a school pupil wants to keep up with their peers, there’s no option but for them to put in incredibly long hours of personal study every single day. The life of one girl, Hye-Min Park, was the subject of a BBC News article a few years ago [1]. She wakes up at 6:30am every single morning, and studies at school from 8am until 4pm.

This, on its own, is more time than British kids put in. But after a brief break at home, where she just finds time to eat, she heads to her hagwon  (a type of private tutoring school attended by the majority of South Korean students) and studies some more from 6 until 9pm. She then heads back to school for another two hours of personal study, before finally getting back home after 11pm at night.

It’s tough, but it’s necessary for South Korean students if they want to go on and study at university. Unfortunately for us, there’s not much we could do to encourage this level of dedication to extra-curricular activity here in Britain.

It’s just as much about family attitudes as it is about education

There’s another factor in South Korean success which also comes from factors outside of our control. Sir Michael Barber, a former to Tony Blair’s campaign to completely reform education in Britain, has gone on record to say that South Korean kids experience the most pressure from their parents: but that it brings huge dividends through educational success. So we aren’t just talking about pressure at  school, but pressure at  home too.

According to Barber, South Korean parents prize hard work over inherited ‘smartness’, which encourages them to apply themselves both inside and outside of school. [2] Children in Australia, for instance, with East Asian parents do far better in school than their peers. Parental attitudes have a notable effect on self-reported studies, in which the children claimed to have ‘a stronger work ethic and higher aspirations’. [2]

In that study, a huge 94% of the pupils surveyed wanted to go on to university [2]. It’s because they know full well that in South Korea, to fail to get into university is a shame on the family- and a guarantee that you’ll be stuck in a low-paying job for the rest of your life. So, for the parents to know that their kids have the best chance of succeeding, they know that they have to push them into after-school tuition…  Just to keep up. But again, there’s only so much we can do to foster this sort of attitude in the U.K.

So what could we actually implement?

First things first, this isn’t a question of the amount of money we invest into education. The South Korean government actually spends the exact average in the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). If anything, we spend more here in the UK- 5.2% of our GDP was funnelled into education in 2015, compared to South Korea, which spent 4.7% [3].

Out of the entire OECD (which has 35 members, mostly Western, but includes Japan and South Korea) the South Korean government actually contributed the least towards higher education costs, at a measly 29.3% of the total, the rest being paid by private sources and tuition fees. So it doesn’t particularly matter whether there is a Conservative government to further cut funds for education after the election- at least in this context.

There are some things that we can do. We can start off by encouraging after school activity and personal study, and clearly outlining their benefits. Homework isn’t punitive; it’s to help students that struggle in class catch up, and students who do well, to excel. Generally, any idea with the goal of improving the work ethic of British students is a good thing, whether the supposed source is South Korea or anywhere else. Aside from this, however, South Korea’s success is due to culture, not policy.

If we could copy the South Korean education system, would it be worth it?

This question is the real kicker. Of course, for the children that do succeed and graduate from one of South Korea’s top universities, they’re all but guaranteed a high-paying, high-status job at one of Korea’s top firms like Samsung or Toshiba. [2] A career job here means you’re practically set for life, and it’s a great honour for parents who sacrifice so much to see their children do well.

But success comes at a cost. The 2014 Youth Happiness Index found that only 67.6% of South Korean school pupils are satisfied with their life, far behind the OECD average of 85.8%. [2] This expresses itself in later life through the South Korean suicide rate, which is one of the highest in the world- alongside similar rankings for household debt, depression, divorce, and alcoholism. [2]

We could, over time, come to exert similar social pressure over British schoolchildren which would encourage them to excel just like those in South Korea. But considering the lifelong negative effects that are directly tied to this excess stress, it really isn’t worth it?






Student Caring Guest Author: James graduated from The University of Sussex in 1996 and completed his P.G.C.E teaching qualification in 1997.  Since then, James has worked as both a teacher, examiner and in management across a broad spectrum of the State and Independent Education sectors.  He is committed to constantly upgrading his teaching skills and raising standards.

May 18, 2017