K+12 & Education in the Republic of Korea

Continuing with our feature on how our Asian neighbors are dealing with the basic primary/secondary education cycle, we turn our attention to the Republic of Korea (ROK). Another country whose primary and secondary students have consistently ranked among the top performers in TIMSS, the Republic of Korea, like Japan, is in a unique situation in that its population speaks basically one language as compared to the Philippines’ 170 or so languages. And like the Japanese, the Koreans are among those avid learners of English as a second language.

Education in the Republic of Korea

The Republic of Korea, a peninsula in the upper Pacific Rim, offers free, mandatory education for all children. The Republic of Korea maintains an autonomous educational administration system established in each of 16 municipal or provincial with 230 county offices to guarantee independence and individuality in regional education.

Today, Korea boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Korea’s well-educated people have been the primary source of the rapid economic growth the nation has achieved in the past three decades. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is the government body responsible for the formulation and implementation of educational policies. The government provides guidance on basic policy matters as well as financial assistance. The financing of education is centralized, and government funding constitutes the largest component of school budgets.

Modern schools were introduced in the 1880s. Along with the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948, the government established a modern educational system and implemented six years of mandatory elementary school attendance in 1953.

Although preschool education is not yet compulsory, recognition of its importance is increasing. As recently as 1980, there were only 901 kindergartens across the nation, but this number increased to 8,344 by 2008. The government has a nationwide project to subsidize kindergarten tuition for children from low-income families, providing underprivileged children increased opportunities for preschool education and thereby establishing a more equitable educational environment. The program has also been expanded to provide free education for 50 percent of five-year-old children.


The curriculum, revised in 1997, introduces ten basic common subjects, individual projects, and special activities that cover the ten years from the first year of elementary school through to the first year of high school. It also includes new elective subjects for the final two years of high school designed to provide students with greater direction in discovering their aptitudes and more choices when choosing careers.

The new curricula were put into effect, beginning with kindergartens, in 2000. The introduction of the curricula in elementary schools started with the first and second grades in 2000, followed by the third and fourth grades in 2001, and by the fifth and sixth grades in 2002. In middle schools and high schools, it was applied to first year students and freshmen in 2001 and 2002 respectively.

Primary education

The education system in the Republic of Korea consists of six-year elementary schools, three-year middle schools, three-year high schools, and four-year colleges and universities, which also offer graduate courses leading to doctoral degrees. There are also two- to three-year junior colleges and vocational colleges. Elementary schooling is compulsory, with an enrollment rate of 100 percent. Compulsory middle school education for three additional years was implemented in 2002.

The average number of students per teacher in elementary schools was 58.8 in 1960. This figure was reduced to 28.1 by 2002 and the average number of students in a class was 29.2 in 2008. Four-year educational study at a teacher’s university is required for those who wish to teach in elementary schools.

Upon completion of elementary school, twelve to fourteen year olds enter the middle school system for seventh to ninth grade. The student-teacher ratio for middle schools in 2008 was 18.8, while the comparable figure for 1970 was 42.3.

Secondary education

There are two types of high schools in the Republic of Korea, general and vocational. Combining the two types of high schools together, the ratio of middle school graduates advancing to high school was 99.7 in 2008. In 2008, the ratio of high school graduates who advanced to institutions of higher learning was 88 percent for general high schools and 73 percent for vocational high schools.

Applicants for vocational high schools (covering agriculture, engineering, business and maritime studies) have a choice of schools and are admitted through examinations administered by each school. The curriculum at vocational high schools is usually 40-60 percent general courses with the remainder consisting of vocational courses. As of 2008, there were 697 vocational high schools with 487,492 students.
General high schools include several specialized schools in the arts, physical education, science, and foreign languages. The goal of these schools is to provide appropriate education for students who have a special ability in a certain field. Courses at general high schools tend to center around preparation for entering universities. As of 2008, there were 1,493 general high schools with 1.42 million students.

Higher education

Colleges and universities in Korea operate under strict enrollment limits. Students’ high school records and national standardized test results determine their eligibility. In addition, some colleges and universities require an additional entrance essay test administered by the institution. There are several types of institutions of higher learning in the Republic of Korea: colleges and universities with four-year undergraduate programs (six years for medical and dental colleges); four-year teacher’s universities; two-year junior vocational colleges; an air and correspondence university; open universities; and schools of collegiate status with two- or four-year programs such as nursing schools and theological seminaries. As of 2008, there were 405 institutions of higher learning in Korea, with a total of 3.56 million students and 73,072 faculty members.

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