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Lessons leave no time for play in Seoul

A 17-year-old boy drifts into sleep, his head drooping into the textbook open in front of him. It is 9 pm and Yang Dong-myung has two more hours of study to complete before going home. Around him sit other teenage South Koreans struggling to stay awake as a tutor scribbles English vocabulary on a blackboard. Mr Yang and his classmates are among the roughly 80 per cent of South Koreans who attend private evening schools, known as hagwort, to improve their changes of reaching university.

An almost cult-like devotion to learning has been among the driving forces behind South Korea’s rapid economic development over the past half century, creating one of the world’s most highly educated workforces. But concern is growing that the obsession with education has spun out of control, putting children under too much stress and families under pressure to pay expensive tuition fees.

The government signalled its alarm last month by announcing plans to outlaw evening classes after 10pm as part of tougher regulation of the $ll billion hagwon industry. Mr Yang attends his hagwon in Seoul four evenings a week from 6pm to 11pm after a full day at school. “I get tired and fall asleep in class,” he says. “But in Korea education is important so my parents force me to study.”

South Korea spends 6.8 per cent of gross domestic product on education, more than any other member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). However, the country’s public spending on education is highlighting the role played by private tuition in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

The teachings of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher who stressed the importance of scholarship, influence many east Asian societies. In South Korea, the zeal for learning is reinforced by a belief that knowledge is crucial to the bid to catch up with richer nations such as Japan and stay ahead of China. “Korea is a country with few natural resources so to better ourselves individually and as a nation we have to use our brains,” say Lee Nan-young, mother of two teenage students. Commitment to education is reflected by research showing South Korea’s 15-year-olds have the highest scientific literacy and second-highest mathematics standards among OECD members.

Private tuition has become so entrenched that public schools skip parts of the curriculum on the assumption it will be taught in evening classes. “Public education teaches students to be rounded individuals; hagwon exist to get them through the university entrance exam,” says Mr Lee.

Getting into a good university is considered a ticket to success in status conscious South Korea, where people are judged according to educational background. The annual entrance exam is so important that people start work an hour late on test day to keep roads clear for candidates, while airports restrict take-offs and landings during the exam to avoid disturbing students.

There is growing awareness of the negative consequence of such a fanatical approach to education. “I worry about my children having no time to exercise and have fun,” says Lee Nan. “Children are getting fat because they are always studying.”

Jung Bong-sup, head of school policy at the ministry of education, says the hagwon style of teaching fails to provide the skills needed in the modem global economy. “Students memorise facts but they don’t learn the ideas behind them,” he says. “In the 21 st century people need to think creatively and that requires more interactive education.”

However, as long as university remains the path to prosperity in South Korea, parents will send their children to hagwon. “If other kids go then so must yours,” says Mrs Lee.

1. Most teenagers in South Korea
1) have to study till late hours.
2) have difficulty to understand English vocabulary.
3) have little chance to enter a university.
4) struggle not falling asleep.

2. Hagwon is the name for
1) the process of intense studying.
2) the process of preparing to enter a university.
3) private evening schools.
4) the obsession with education.

3. The devotion to learning has led to
1) growing the workforce in Korea.
2) too much stress among children.
3) fast economic development.
4) high tuition fees.

4. The South Korean government is going to
1) ban studying after 10pm.
2) make private schools pay $11 billion fine.
3) support private education.
4) make private evening schools out of law.

5. The words “knowledge is crucial to the bid to catch up with richer nations” means that South Korea wants
1) to get the best education among OECD members.
2) to go ahead among Asia’s leading countries.
3) to survive without natural resources.
4) to prove the teaching of Confucius.

6. While the annual entrance exam in South Korea
1) people avoid going out on the exam day.
2) the airports delay flights for the day.
3) there are huge traffic jams on the roads.
4) people try to do everything not to disturb students.

7. The higher education in South Korea is considered to be
1) enough to get a job.
2) the path to a wealthy life.
3) the must for everybody..
4) the way to lead an unhealthy lifestyle.

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