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 top priority, spending as much as three times more on education than 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 private institutions 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 preschool 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.
High school attendance is not mandatory in South Korea, but the government introduced free high school education in 2019 as the country has almost universal high school enrolment. High schools in South Korea are placed in one of five categories: general, autonomous, vocational, schools for gifted students and special purpose schools that focus on either science, the arts or physical education.
Public schools in South Korea often focus almost solely on academics, and many don’t have excellent sports facilities. Rote learning is emphasised, and particular attention is given to science, maths, Korean and English.
Private schools in South Korea
Private schools in South Korea are not what many people imagine private schools to be. Korean children attend public schools for a regular school day, followed by further learning at private schools called hagwons.
Attending hagwons can be seen as a form of extra tutoring, as they function as further school assistance. Parents pay for their child's attendance at these schools, which can be rather expensive.
International schools in South Korea
Due to the presence of Westerners in the US Army bases as well as the large English teaching community, there are several 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).
International schools are fairly pricey, 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 can 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.
Special-needs education in South Korea
By law, children in South Korea cannot be refused admission or discriminated against by any school because of their special needs. The law also stipulates that there must be at least one school in every province that caters specifically to special learning needs, but many children with disabilities attend mainstream schools. Students who spend a lot of time in the hospital can study online while receiving medical treatment. Education is also free for children with physical and intellectual disabilities from the ages of five to 18 in South Korea.
For a child to attend a school for special needs, they must first be registered as a child with a disability at their local district office. Parents can then apply to the school of their choice. There are a total of 187 special-needs schools in the country and more than 12,000 special-needs classrooms. Seoul is home to 29 special-needs schools, so expat parents will have a variety to choose from.
Not all international schools in South Korea cater for children with special educational needs, and expat parents should check with the relevant school.
Tutors in South Korea
Education in South Korea is extremely competitive. Parents place a lot of pressure on their children to achieve high marks. Owing to 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. They can be hired for anything from general assistance with school subjects to help to maintain proficiency in a child's mother tongue or helping them 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.
The tutoring industry in South Korea is well established, so expats will have plenty of options. 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 (private after-school academy). Many schools will have a list of tutors or hagwons they can recommend.
Tertiary education in South Korea
The fiercely competitive Korean job market means that going to the right schools, networking and maintaining relationships is paramount. 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.
There are a fair few state universities and many private institutions in the country, including several vocational polytechnics. University entry is usually based almost entirely on grade scores.
Expats applying to an English university will need to show proof that they have received an English education or qualification. Those applying to a Korean university will have to demonstrate an ability to speak Korean sufficiently (typically via an official transcript from a Korean language programme).