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[Editorial] After-school child care

End of school child care lottery at schools for first graders a welcome step

By Korea Herald

Published : March 5, 2024 - 05:30

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The new school year has now begun, with the fewest ever first graders – about 369,400 – starting the 12-year journey. Typical school hours will begin at 9 a.m. and end around 1 p.m., but many more first graders will be staying in school longer starting this semester.

South Korea’s public elementary schools have run after-school child care programs for a select number of first and second graders. Children with both parents working have been given priority, and if there are more such applicants than available places, they are decided by a lottery. The “dolbom (care) classrooms,” where children do their homework and take part in activities such as dancing, reading and farming, are run even through school breaks. Parents only pay for the child's snacks and dinners. There are also after-school classes such as violin lessons and badminton classes for first to sixth graders that charge a small fee.

The government announced early last month that an integrated program of dolbom and the after-school classes called “neulbom school” will be available for all first graders who sign up at about 2,700 elementary schools this semester, and at all of the 6,000 elementary schools nationwide in the second semester of this year. No lottery. Neulbom school, open until 8 p.m. with free dinners for children who register for evening care, will be expanded to all first and second graders from next year, and to all students at elementary schools from 2026, the Education Ministry said.

There will be some trial and error.

As the number of schools that applied for the program has greatly exceeded the ministry’s estimate of around 2,000, the ministry has so far allowed only 2,250 of the schools to hire new short-term teaching staff. Due to the short notice, however, some schools are starting the semester without additional staff.

The remaining 491 schools will have their existing staff handle neulbom school for the time being.

In some schools, there is conflict between teachers and local education authorities over space and staff. Teachers’ unions have criticized the rushed implementation and vowed to take action if teachers are overworked. The ministry said it plans to hire 6,000 people exclusively for neulbom in the second semester of the year.

While there is much to be done to manage conflicts between teachers’ unions and education authorities, the greatly expanded after-school child care is generally welcomed by parents. As of Feb. 26, over 111,300 first graders, or nearly a third of all first graders nationwide, have signed up for neulbom.

The free child care will allow more mothers and fathers to work without having to pack their children’s schedules with costly extracurricular lessons like taekwondo, piano and art, or hiring someone to pick them up and look after them. Details vary across schools and regions, but neulbom will consist of two hours of free classes until about 3 p.m., followed by paid extracurriculars, which cost less than 50,000 won per month, and free dinners, according to the ministry.

Those who want their children to learn years ahead of their grade will still continue to prioritize the common cram schools known here as hagwon. That may be one of the reasons only 6.3 percent of the elementary schools in Seoul registered for neulbom this semester. But not everyone wants to put their first graders under such academic pressure. All of the elementary schools in Busan and South Jeolla Province will provide neulbom. In Gyeonggi Province, 73 percent, or 975 schools, will offer the program.

The quality of the free and low-priced after-school classes may not be on par with those of popular hagwons, but it can improve through greater competition if a significant number of pupils enroll. Some local education offices that ran pilot neulbom programs last year offered classes including golf, ballet, swimming, drones and coding. Some plan to provide water sports, fencing and even horseback riding lessons.

The neulbom policy certainly will encourage local education offices and schools to be more competitive, and would greatly help parents in a country that has recorded the world's lowest birth rate.