South Korea’s Cram School Obsession: a survey of education and how it came to be in South Korea

“South Korea’s Cram School Obsession” (Asianometry, 4 July 2022)

What initially started out as an investigation into South Korean families’ mania for after-school private tutoring for their children in an effort to get them into a tiny number of elite universities that would later send them into secure and gilded hamster-wheel jobs for the rest of their working lives blooms into a full-on historical examination of how South Korean governments over the past 80 years have tried to curb private tutoring for various reasons, most of which actually have little to do with the children’s welfare and more to do with moulding a nation of obedient and conformist worker bees. In the early 20th century when the Korean peninsula was under the heel of Japanese imperialism, the Japanese government neglected education in Korea and concentrated on brainwashing the Korean people into accepting their subordinate status in the Japanese empire by ignoring Korean history and culture. After gaining independence in the 1950s, an impoverished South Korea had few public resources to put into education so families footed the bill for their children’s primary and secondary education. This established an early pattern in which families would pour much of their money, resources and energy into their children’s schooling so that as adults the children would be able to get secure and well-paying work.

From the 1950s to the 1980s the South Korean government under various authoritarian presidents applied the stick approach to private tutoring, at times banning it altogether – yet private after-school institutions found ways of circumventing government regulations. As long as South Korean parents were keen to give their offspring a head start over their peers in the education stakes, private tutoring schools charged high fees to educate the children, mainly to cover their legal costs if they were raided by police. In the 1990s, after South Korea changed to a more democratic style of governing, more public money was poured into improving public education, public schools became more meritocratic and efforts were made to reduce or mitigate the phenomenon of examination hell – mass public exams held at the end of the school year that determined which high school Year 6 students would later attend or which university Year 12 students would be able to attend – and the psychological and even physical pressures such hell put on young people and their families. In the early 2000s, after a ban on private tutoring was lifted, the new phenomenon of hagwon (after-hours private tutoring academies that can operate either as classic cram schools or schools offering remedial, supplementary or even recreational non-academic education such as music lessons, art lessons and sport) caught on among families – in April 2010, over 25,000 hagwon were registered with the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education and 6,000 of these alone were located in the Gangnam district of Seoul.

The results of South Korea’s education system along with the private tutoring phenomenon have produced a highly educated population whose children perform impressively in annual PISA tests that compare the education systems of various countries. At the same time, the obsession with education (because of what it is perceived by parents to do for their children) can have quite serious long-term effects: it strains parent-child relationships, it can be a factor in adolescent depression leading to suicidal behaviour and the financial sacrifices parents make to put their children through public and private education often mean that families are only able to raise one child. This has been one factor among many that explain the low fertility rates in South Korea and the nation faces a future in which a rapidly ageing population has to be supported by a shrinking taxpayer base.

The mini-documentary does an excellent job explaining the history of education in South Korea from the 1950s on, the tinkering that Seoul has been doing and continues to do to make education more affordable and equitable for children of all socioeconomic levels. What it does not do so well is explore how and why the South Korean general public has come to have such an obsession with education to the extent that it can have adverse effects on children’s physical and psychological development and well-being and even long-term consequences for the nation’s demographic profile. Why is it that the nation’s top universities are located in Seoul and not spread out over the entire country? How does the obsession with education contribute to the concentration of educational institutes in Seoul and the creation of a social and cultural divide between Seoul and the rest of South Korea? How does the centralisation of industry, finance and society in Seoul influence parents’ decisions on where to live and what schools to be close to? If the South Korean government were to be truly serious about tackling the growth of private education and the threat it makes to sustaining an equal society in which success should depend more on one’s own achievements regardless of what kind of background one has, it would have to start by spreading more of the nation’s wealth around the country and encourage government offices and private industry to go out of Seoul and its metropolitan area and set up branches and factories in areas where people are already resident. There would be no pressure on people to move to Seoul to obtain educational advantages for their children when the schools, colleges and universities are already present in their own towns and regional cities.