Seoul to cut homework for kids in P1 and P2

Schoolchildren at play in Seoul. South Korea's school system is geared to the relentless pursuit of academic excellence.
Schoolchildren at play in Seoul. South Korea's school system is geared to the relentless pursuit of academic excellence.ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON

Move aimed at reducing burden on parents and curbing spread of costly tuition centres

Ms Kwon Hee Sun's six-year-old son will start primary school next year, but she is worried because he cannot read the hangul, or Korean alphabet, yet.

He is also averse to any kind of "study", so Ms Kwon, a 39-year-old public relations consultant, is not confident he will get used to the South Korea's academic-driven school system that dishes out loads of homework.

"Homework is stressful for parents too. It is a huge burden, especially for working mums," she said. "The education system is so competitive and students have to learn things that are not even proper for their age, like coding and PowerPoint in elementary school."

Like many other mums with pre-schoolers, Ms Kwon is happy to hear about plans by Seoul city to reduce the amount of homework for the first two years in primary school starting next year.

These pupils usually spend one to two hours a day doing English, mathematics and Korean language homework, as well as writing journals and revising what they learnt in school.

The move is aimed at reducing the burden of homework on parents and is part of broader plans to curb the proliferation of hagwons, or private tuition centres, that is putting a considerable financial strain on parents, said the Seoul Education Office.

  • 44.6% Of survey respondents who are working parents consider themselves "edupoor", or cash-strapped from spending too much on their children's education

    95% Of respondents with children in primary or secondary school send them for private lessons

In a competitive country like South Korea, focused on the relentless pursuit of academic excellence in order to get ahead, more people are becoming "edupoor" - a term coined to describe parents who are cash-strapped from spending too much on their children's education.

A survey in June of 1,202 working parents by job site Job Korea showed that 44.6 per cent of them considered themselves edupoor. Parents spend an average of 348,000 won (S$430) a month on education for pre-schoolers, 411,000 won for primary school children, and 551,000 won for those in secondary and high school.

Around 95 per cent of respondents with children in primary or secondary school send them to hagwons for private lessons in English, mathematics, Korean language, sports and music.

By cutting homework, the Seoul Education Office hopes to take some pressure off pupils and reduce the need for them to go to hagwons to learn in advance what they will be taught in school later.

Education official Kim Moon Ho told The Sunday Times: "Our aim is to create a happier school life and promote wholesome development of our children.

"Without the burden of homework, families can enjoy their time together and have more opportunities to talk and experience things together."

He added that homework will still be necessary, but it will be work that pupils can do by themselves, which is age-appropriate and does not require help from parents.

Mr Kim said his office has been getting two to three calls a day from parents of pre-schoolers who are keen to find out how their children can adapt to the new policy.

The Education Office is in the midst of developing a new curriculum tailored to the needs of pupils in the first two years of primary school.

As learning will be play-centred, Mr Kim said the office will also need to get more funds for suitable toys and learning materials.

Ms Kwon frowns on academic hagwons but intends to sign her son up for fun classes like taekwondo, football and art. "I have seen too many elites at work who did not know what to do except study because of their parents' expectations. I don't want my son to end up like that," she said.

But parents such as Ms Jennifer Kim will continue to send their children for private lessons no matter what.

She has a seven-year-old daughter in Primary One who spends up to two hours on homework each day. The child also has piano lessons every day and private tutors coaching her in mathematics and Korean language on different days.

"We cannot trust that the (less-homework) plan will be implemented fully, especially when policies change when the department head changes," said the 42-year-old civil servant.

"Anyway, the amount of homework is still bearable. It is not very stressful."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Seoul to cut homework for kids in P1 and 2'. Print Edition | Subscribe