Korean elite schools still popular despite changes

SOUTH KOREA - In South Korea, getting diplomas from top-tier universities is seen as crucial to a successful life.

To raise the odds, the majority of high school students fiercely prepare for the annual college entrance exam. For younger students, getting into elite high schools is a top priority, as those schools are believed to offer easier access to elite universities.

Aside from regular high schools with long histories and good reputations, there are two types of elite schools in Korea: autonomous private high schools and special-purpose private high schools. These schools all saw an increase in the number of applicants last year.

This took place despite the government's recent efforts to reduce parental preference for the schools.

The autonomous private high schools initially selected 1.5-2 times as many students as they had places, based on their overall middle school grades. Which of these students gained admission was then decided by lottery.

This method touched off criticism that the schools were forcing competition among middle school students by picking only those with good grades.

Last year, the Education Ministry attempted to impose a lottery-based admissions system for autonomous private high schools. This prompted fierce opposition from parents of students already attending these schools, who complained that the autonomous private schools would have no merit if they were not allowed to pick their own students.

The ministry caved into protests in October by deciding that autonomous private schools in Seoul could pick their own students, but not based on the students' grades. Instead of a lottery, the schools can conduct interviews.

The non-Seoul based autonomous schools will retain the current system.

The new policy was confirmed and made public on Jan. 8, and will be applied until 2017.

An official from a local teachers' organisation, Good Teachers, said the interviews would ultimately allow schools to pick only students with better grades.

"The new system allows interviews, which I believe will filter students with bad grades," said a parent who attended an admissions talk held by one of the autonomous private high schools.

Many parents believe that attending elite schools will help their children get into top universities, which is why they are willing to pay expensive tuition.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, yearly tuition of autonomous private schools ranged from 4.6 million won (S$5,500) to 5.4 million won, considerably higher than 1.45 million won for regular high schools.

To some extent, this belief is based on statistics.

Seoul National University, widely regarded the top Korean university, recently revealed as that 45 per cent of 2,816 students it accepted on early admission this year came from elite schools. The proportion is fairly high considering that there are only 105 such high schools in the country, accounting for just 4.5 per cent of all high schools.

There are currently 2,303 high schools in the nation.

Recent data released by Rep. Kim Jin-tae of the Saenuri Party shows that 11 per cent of 1,959 judges appointed from 2003-2013 graduated from just five foreign language high schools in Seoul.

The numbers suggest that getting accepted to the elite high schools is the first step toward entry into a higher social class. Some private education institutes even go so far as to say the failure to do so will lead to second-tier schooling, second-tier jobs and a second-tier life.

"A diploma (from an elite school) is a lifelong certificate to ensure high social status. Thus, the intense competition to procure such a certificate," said Cho Hee-yeon, a professor of sociology at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. "This results in the emergence of a new class society (of education)."

Experts say the elite schools work against the principle of providing fair educational opportunities.

In 1974, South Korea banned high school entrance exams in a bid to ease competition for entry into top-ranked high schools and standardize all high schools. This changed in the 1990s, when students from special-purpose high schools started going to the top universities in large numbers.

Private institutions started making "foreign language high school classes" and "science high school classes" specifically aimed at getting students into those schools. Special purpose high schools became the top-ranking schools.

They were joined by autonomous high schools that were introduced in 2009. The schools only accepted applicants who were in the top 50 per cent in their respective cities, which parents found appealing, despite their high tuition fees.

Parents spare no expense or effort to get their children into elite high schools.

The phrase "Gangnam moms" refers to women in the affluent area of southern Seoul who spend a lot of money on their children's education and tirelessly comb private institutions and admission seminars for prestigious high schools and universities to obtain the latest information.

Money, of course, is one of main factors in these competitions.

A report by Korea Educational Development Institute showed that there was a correlation between parents' wealth and social status and students' academic performance. It also showed that parents' whose children attend autonomous private high schools spend considerably more on private education.

Some of the rich and powerful go out of their way to send their children to elite schools, sometimes even stepping outside the bounds of the law.

Last year, Younghoon International Middle School was embroiled in an admission corruption scandal that involved Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jay-yong's son. The school had accepted Lee's son and other children from affluent families through a programme reserved for "underprivileged" applicants.

Although the case was never legally proven to be fraud, subsequent investigations found that school has accepted unqualified students in exchange for bribes.

Those without such family backgrounds turn to private education institutes. South Korean parents spend 20 trillion won a year on private education.

Some even move to wealthy neighborhoods in the Gangnam area so their children will be closer to popular private institutes. A 56-year-old mother surnamed Kim said this is why she moved her whole family to Daechi-dong, a major centre of private education.

"I thought it was better for my son and my daughter to live in an area packed with smarter kids, so they would be motivated," she said. Her family moved out of the area after the children left for university, but not before racking up debt from living in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Seoul.

The problem is that these are not wealthy families, but ones with average incomes. Naturally, this leads to trouble later in life.

A 2010 survey by Mirae Asset Group showed that 60 per cent of retirees are having financial difficulties. The biggest reason for failing to save up was their children's education fees.

"Parents spend their entire retirement funds on thier children's education. But if their children fail to find decent jobs, it becomes a huge social problem," said An Sang-jin, an official with World Without Worries About Private Education. "Without retirement funds, their quality of life plummets and they lead miserable lives."

A recent survey by a local English institute found that over half of parents with elementary school students thought they were so-called "edu-poor," a term referring to those driven to poverty by hefty education fees.

Psychiatrist Choi Han-seok, the author of "I'm More Concerned About Education Than Economy," said in his book that in South Korea one of the main reasons for depression among the middle-aged is education fees.

"Society demands that people spend money on education. It's a system that creates edu-poor people," he said.

The experts say the elite high schools mean the decades of governmental attempts to provide fairness in high school education have failed.

Cho said that the government has effectively cemented a situation in which students in elite high schools get better opportunities. As a result, the competition that once centred mainly on high school students has expanded to engulf younger students as well.

"With autonomous high schools, (the government) has created an alternate route to top universities. The standardization of high schools is as good as done for," Cho said.

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