Since the 1960s, the Korean Republic has emerged as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, largely thanks to a fierce focus on education. This legacy of hard work and achievement continues to shape education in South Korea, which regularly outperforms Western countries in science and mathematics.
Expat parents looking to educate their children in Korea should prepare themselves for a society that puts enormous emphasis on academic performance – an emphasis that also spills into the international schools in South Korea.
South Korean parents treat education as a household’s top priority, spending as much as three times on education as their American counterparts. A typical school-going child in South Korea spends eight hours a day in school, and up to six additional hours reviewing school work at cram schools called hagwons.
There are several good international schools, especially American-curriculum schools, due to the presence of various United States Army bases and a sizeable expat community.
Children usually begin pre-school at three or four years old, continue into grade one at six years old and complete grade 12 – the final year of schooling – at 18 years old.
Public schools in South Korea
While the standards of education at public schools are excellent, most expats don't send their children to public schools as the language of instruction is Korean.
The public education system is divided into three parts: six years of primary school, followed by three years of middle school and three years of high school. Attending primary and middle school is compulsory and public schooling is provided for free. It's not mandatory to attend high school, and parents must pay for high school attendance.
Public schools in South Korea often focus almost solely on academics, and many public schools don’t have sports facilities of good quality. Rote learning is emphasised, and particular attention is given to science, maths, Korean and English.
Private schools in South Korea
There is a high number of private schools in South Korea. They are generally more expensive than public schools, especially as parents will have to pay for both primary and middle school.
Although private schools are independently funded, they follow the state curricula and the language of instruction is Korean.
International schools in South Korea
Due to the presence of Westerners in the US Army base as well as the large English teaching community, there are a number of high-quality international schools in South Korea, particularly in Seoul. Many are American-curriculum schools or follow an international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate (IB). There are also French and British curriculum schools.
International schools are extremely expensive, but they provide the benefits of English-language instruction and allow for a continuous learning experience, as many expat children will continue following the curriculum from their home country.
Homeschooling in South Korea
The academically driven nature of Korean schooling, coupled with the high cost of international schools, means that an increasing number of expat parents choose to homeschool their children.
Homeschooling laws in South Korea are vague. Although the government has expressed a somewhat positive stance on homeschooling in the past, this has yet to be transcribed into law. In practice, parents are generally able to homeschool their children without much issue or interference. It's possible to complete courses through accredited online schools or distance learning colleges and graduate with an American high school diploma or British A-Levels.
Tutors in South Korea
Education and schooling in South Korea is extremely competitive. Parents place a lot of pressure on their children to achieve high marks. Because of this, hiring a tutor in South Korea is common practice. It would be more uncommon for a child not to have a tutor than to have one. Tutors can be useful for expat children transitioning into a new school environment. Tutors can be hired for anything from general assistance with school subjects to helping maintain a child's mother tongue or helping them to learn Korean. Differences in education systems may result in expat children being behind in some areas of their new curriculum, and tutors are an excellent way to catch up.
Tutoring in South Korea is a huge industry, so expats will have plenty of choices. Expats should research different options thoroughly before deciding on a tutor. Tutoring can be done one-on-one, through online classes and videos, or by attending a hagwon (after school academy). Many schools will have a list of tutors or hagwons they can recommend.
Tertiary education in South Korea
The highly competitive Korean job market means that going to the right schools, networking and maintaining relationships are extremely important. The university that a potential employee attended can make or break a job application, and competition for places in the best South Korean universities is exceptionally fierce.
In the country, there are a number of state universities and many private institutions, including a number of vocational polytechnics. University entry is usually based almost entirely on grade scores.
Expats applying at an English university will need to show proof that they have received an English education or qualification, while those applying at a Korean university will have to demonstrate an ability to speak Korean sufficiently (usually via an official transcript from a Korean language programme).
Are you an expat living in South Korea?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Korea. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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