Overhauling South Korea’s education system is an extremely difficult task as it involves many stakeholders and potentially explosive issues in a nation where hyper-competition among parents and students is the norm.
It is no wonder then that the government’s plan, abruptly announced Friday, to lower the school starting age from the current 6 to 5, starting as early as 2025, is touching off a firestorm of criticism from teachers, parents and education experts.
The Education Ministry said it would finalize the policy if there is a social consensus and carry out the plan over a period of four years. It would be the first time for the government to overhaul the country’s school system in 76 years -- if it somehow manages to pull off a social consensus.
The outlook for the fate of the policy is largely negative. On Monday, a total of 42 civic groups representing kindergarten and school teachers and parents staged a protest in front of the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, to call for the government to withdraw the plan.
The fiery public reaction to the plan is understandable since it is rare, if not unprecedented, for a state agency to float a drastic plan first and then gauge public opinions to flesh out details later.
Negative public sentiment is also being channeled to Education Minister Park Soon-ae, who reported the controversial plan to President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday. As critical voices soared, Park presented a strange idea on how policies work Monday. “Policies are not fixed when they are announced,” she said, adding that she will start the policy procedure from now on by listening to views from various groups and consider implementing the plan gradually over 12 years rather than four years.
Given the poor preparation, hasty announcement, and constantly changing words of the education minister, it is quite natural for parents, teachers and experts to criticize the policy plan.
The Education Ministry’s official objective is to lower the school starting age in a way that will lessen the burden on parents concerning private education costs, and in the longer term, allow youth to enter the job market one year early, thereby addressing the chronic social problems in which people tend to land jobs and get married at an older age, leading to low birth rate.
But this objective is not only simplistic but also unrealistic in many respects. First, there is no academic or field report that justifies the policy of lowering the school entry age, much less long-term research about its impact on intellectually unprepared 5-year-old children. School teachers are also new to taking care of the younger age group, whose behavior patterns would likely require a different approach. Training teachers for the new student group is also time-consuming, and developing a new curriculum requires enough state budget and solid academic research, neither of which are available.
Second, especially in Korea, where education is a make-or-break issue for many parents, the new policy is feared to force students to enter into fierce competition in school one year early, resulting in higher private education costs for parents and increasing the childrearing burden for double-income parents.
The Education Ministry said it would integrate kindergartens and child care centers to address possible side effects, but its feasibility is in doubt. Kindergarten teachers also oppose the plan that would result in fewer students and job losses.
Third, the policy could put extra burden on some 83,000 children born from January to March of 2019, who would be forced to start school one year early in 2025 and face unfair competition with 326,000 children born in 2018. Parents of those born in 2019 could take issue with the policy’s fairness. In addition, schools -- from elementary through middle and high to universities --have to secure additional classroom space, facilities and teachers for the expanded number of 2025-year students. Worse, after 2025, the number of students is set to decline, leaving the expanded capacity idle for years to come.
The Education Ministry should first go back to the drawing board and start doing basic research on its controversial policy. After all, nobody wants a half-baked policy to be prematurely announced and then keep changing in its details.