The Ministry of Education on Thursday announced its decision to abolish elite high schools across the country in March 2025, as part of efforts to improve fairness in the education system.
“In 2025, independent private schools, foreign language schools and global schools will be turned into regular schools all at once, and we will lay the groundwork for a high school credit system and future-oriented education,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said at a press briefing at the Central Government Complex in central Seoul.
“I take the public concerns seriously that the disparity in education leads to disparity in social classes,” she said.
The quality of public high school education will be enhanced with diversified curriculums and a new credit system that will be put in place starting in 2025, she added.
The drastic change comes amid criticism that elite schools play a role in widening the disparity in education between the haves and have-nots.
The schools were set up to meet students’ diverse needs, but they have been increasingly criticized for being a means to enter prestigious colleges in South Korean society, where a college degree is a major factor in determining one’s future -- from employment to marriage prospects.
Critics also have pointed out that the elite schools, largely attended by children of wealthy parents, reinforce hierarchies among schools, encourage excessive competition among students and promote spending on private education.
Tuition at these schools is three times higher on average and parents usually spend from 1.4 to 1.7 times more on private education to get their children accepted.
Until 2024, the schools will maintain their status as special-purpose institutions and accept new students. Starting from March 2025, they will admit students in the same way as regular schools but can maintain their existing names and specialized curriculums.
As of April 2019, the number of special-purpose institutions stood at 79 nationwide, with about 4 percent of high school students attending them. There were 1,555 regular schools attended by 1.1 million students.
The high school system will be simplified, education will be more closely tailored to each student’s needs and diverse curriculums -- covering subjects ranging from art to vocational training -- will be available at regular high schools, according to the ministry.
Starting in 2025, a new credit system will be enforced at high schools, under which sophomores and seniors can choose the subjects they want to study, just like in university.
To enhance the capacity of regular schools, 2 trillion won will be allocated in the state budget for the five-year period.
The decision was hailed by progressive superintendents of major cities including Seoul, but denounced by elite institutions and parents of children attending the schools.
“I think today is the day (the country is) beginning to transition toward a horizontal, diverse high school system,” Seoul superintendent Cho Hee-yon, who has long campaigned against elite schools, said at the briefing.
The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations called the decision “a declaration to give up school diversity.”
“It is not in line with the direction advanced countries are pursuing -- opening up educational opportunities for students of diverse and advanced levels in accordance with their aptitude and ability in Industry 4.0,” it said in a statement.
The abolition of autonomous private schools is regression in disguise as fairness, Kim Chul-kyung, who heads an association of principals of autonomous private schools, said at a press conference.
“The damage from the government’s irresponsible policy decision will fall on students and parents, and confusion and conflicts will only intensify,” he said.