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South Korea's schooling system: everything you need to know

By Talk Education
15 March 2022

Thinking of moving to South Korea? Here’s everything you need to know about the country’s international-schools market.

OVERVIEW

With over 50 per cent of the population having completed some form of higher education, South Korea is one of the most educated countries in the world. As a result, the standard of schools here is incredibly high. Apart from the language of instruction and cost, there is very little distinction between public (free) and private (paid-for) education in South Korea. Across the board, academic results are consistently high, and students are very driven to do well.

There are two types of international schools in South Korea. Fees are typically high for both categories:

  • International’ schools, open to both Koreans and any families with an international passport. There are six schools like this in the country. Many affluent Korean families send their children to them, and although they follow an international curriculum (often American or British) and instruct in English, Korean culture can dominate. Standards are very high and there is a lot of academic pressure. Pupils can study towards the South Korea-certified High School Diploma if they wish. 
  • ‘Foreign’ schools, open to families with international passports only. In some circumstances, a Korean national can send their child to these schools if they have lived overseas for more than three years (or if one parent has a foreign passport), but the quota of Korean nationals at these schools is capped at 30 per cent. There are about 40 schools of this type. Pupils study towards an international curriculum (usually taught in the first language of the school) and cannot receive the South Korean High School Diploma. 
International families may also send their children to public schools, but students must have a basic level of Korean as this is the language of instruction.

THE PRIVATE-SCHOOLS MARKET: KEY POINTS

This highest concentration of private schools is found around the capital, Seoul, and the suburbs of Incheon.

Schooling in Korea is compulsory for the
primary and middle school stages. High school is not compulsory, but almost 90 per cent of pupils move on to it. 

The number of pupils at these schools can vary hugely: some have as few as 500, others up to 1,300. 

The majority of international schools in South Korea are
co-ed (bar one exception: Branksome Hall). Many are also all-through, starting at nursery or Reception and continuing all the way to Year 13. 

Private schools follow the same years and grades used in British and US schools. The only exceptions are the country’s two French schools. However, it’s worth knowing that age in Korea is calculated differently: a child is a one-year-old on the day they are born, with an additional year subsequently added on the next New Year’s Day. As a result, Koreans finish schooling at 19 years of age, which in the west would be the equivalent of 18. 

Schools follow the same term structure as the west, with the academic year running from
September to July

If a school is linked to a specific country (such as France, Germany or Japan), there will naturally be a higher number of students of that nationality attending the school. As mentioned above, some international schools can be
heavily weighted towards Korean nationals (there is no limit or quota in these schools). 

THE EDUCATIONAL JOURNEY

Most foreign students join a new school when their family moves to South Korea (or, if their family is already living in the country, at the very start of their education). There is usually very little movement between schools, as the majority are all-through. On the whole, a pupil will only change school if their current one is no longer the right fit, although this is often a personal decision taken by the family. 

THE ADMISSIONS PROCESS

Most schools operate a rolling admissions process throughout the year, but different schools have different admissions processes and schedules – so do check individual websites for any deadlines. Admissions fees tend to include:
  • An admissions/registration fee
  • An acceptance/enrollment fee
  • A capital-development fee
THE CURRICULUM

The British and American curricula are the most popular at foreign schools in South Korea. Pupils may study towards IGCSEs, the IB or A-levels, or even country-specific courses such as the French Baccalauréat or the German Abitur. Some international schools offer the South Korean-certified High School Diploma. 

English is the main language of teaching, except in schools affiliated with a certain country (where some teaching will also take place in the relevant first language). The only exception is the German Primary School – the only school in the country that teaches exclusively in German. 

After finishing school, a high proportion of private-school students head on to US universities or other destinations across the globe. That said, Korea does have some very good universities, which are gradually becoming more appealing to foreign students. 


BOARDING

Most boarding schools in South Korea tend to be located outside of Seoul (there is a very good public-transport system here, and most families live close to their child’s school), on Jeju Island.

WHAT’S CHANGING?

In recent years, the government has embarked upon a big education drive (partly in response to the country’s increasing economic growth). As a result, academic achievement is going up and up – as is the pressure to succeed. Worryingly, there’s a high suicide rate among teens, many of whom feel compelled to be very high achievers who are constantly top of the class. 

AND FINALLY…

Remember, ‘international’ schools are not always what you think they’ll be, and they could well be filled with Korean nationals.