South Korea should embark on some soul-searching into its education system and find ways to address some of its problems instead of just praising its own accomplishments, said the head of an international group of teachers' unions.
During her stay in Korea to attend the World Education Forum 2015 last week, Susan Hopgood, head of the Education International, pointed to the forum as an example, saying that the event failed to mention any of the current education issues in the country.
These include the on-going debate over teachers making political statements or high stress and academic pressure suffered by students due to heated competition.
"There have been talks about students committing suicide because of the education situation. Stress (is) put on them by the government, teachers, parents and the system; but it's almost like we're not going to talk about that," she said. "I'm disappointed that there hasn't been some recognition that there are some things that should change."
The international education forum was criticised despite the fanfare, as Korea's education authorities arranged a lengthy special session on how education has contributed to its rapid economic growth.
It invested most of its energy on boasting the accomplishment by Korean students, namely its high performance in Program for International Student Assessment.
Hopgood, however, said the education should be more than PISA scores.
"PISA only shows some of the (academic) accomplishments. It's important because it gives international comparisons, but there also needs to be introspection within the system," she said, adding Korea should ask itself how it can meet the needs of students and teachers in various aspects.
These include the immense stress put on students by high expectations on academic performance. The suicide rate for teenagers has increased by 57 per cent from 2001 to 2011, a recent report by the Korea Health Promotion Foundation showed.
The pressure rises particularly around November during the the national college entrance exam ― called Suneung here. The grade each student gets in the exam plays a critical role in his or her college admission, and reports of students taking their own lives around the day of Suneung emerge each year.
"We hope there is a recognition that the competitive nature of your education system needs to change. And the high-stakes are what causes unhappiness of students," she said.
She spoke out for teachers' rights in Korea. Under Korean law, teachers and other civil servants are prohibited from publicly expressing their political views.
This, Hopgood pointed out, violates their right to freedom of expression.
"Teachers should have the same civil rights as all other members of the society. ILO (International Labor Organisation) and UNESCO's recommendation on the state of teachers ― which was adopted by the Korean government ― makes it clear that teachers should have rights, including the right to make political statements," she said.
Hopgood reiterated the EI's position that the government should abandon its attempt to delegalize the left-leaning Korea Teachers and Education Workers' Union, which has received criticism for being too political.
Speaking from her experience as a teacher in Australia, Hopgood said Korean educators should encourage dialogue on social issues, including politics. This is essential to ensure that the education is not just confined to the textbooks, but also addresses real-life issues.
"The achievement of quality education for all cannot happen until you have proper social dialogue and inclusion of the teaching community," she said.
Education International is a federation of 401 associations and unions across the world, representing some 30 million teachers and education workers in 171 countries and territories.