Elite feeder schools to top universities to lose licences

Eight elite private high schools in Seoul that run their own curriculum and prepare students for top universities have had their licences cancelled by the city’s education authority as part of the government’s drive to level the field in South Korea’s highly competitive university admissions environment.

The cancellation of the licences of eight of the 13 ‘autonomous private high schools’ in Seoul will need to be approved by the education minister. If approved, they will lose their special status that gives them greater autonomy in admissions, financing and the curriculum and will become regular high schools.

However, given Korean President Moon Jae-in’s pledge during the 2017 elections to get rid of elite schools, political analysts say he is unlikely to oppose the move.

“If there is no procedural problem, I will respect the decision [of the Seoul education authority],” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye said last month.

Such schools were failing to meet their founding purpose of providing elite education, she said on 22 June, adding that the schools, which were introduced 10 years ago to provide students with more creative curricula, “have only distorted the whole education system by bringing in the ranking of high schools and overheated competition among even elementary school children for prestigious university admissions”.

She was speaking after two regional education authorities outside Seoul decided to strip two elite schools, Sangsan High School in Jeonju in North Jeolla province and Ansan Dongsan High School in Gyeonggi province, of their licences, citing a failure to meet government standards. Another school in the southern coastal city of Busan also received notification in late June.

Such schools, with their higher tuition fees, have been favoured by the well-off because of an often higher academic standard and focus on some subjects which are weaker in normal schools such as foreign languages and science.

Many are feeder schools for major universities and attract students from well outside the city where they are located.

Their freedom to select pupils often meant they creamed off top students from normal schools, according to critics.

Supplement to national curriculum

The schools supplement South Korea’s national curriculum, which relies heavily on front-of-class teaching, with discussion groups and research projects that develop skills sought after by universities abroad. But they have been accused of fuelling excessive competition for the best universities.

The schools, 46 in total in the country and 13 in Seoul, must have their licences renewed every five years or be reclassified as normal high schools.

"Although the government will continuously seek to abolish autonomous private high schools, the process must be logical," the minister said. "Schools that have operated under the initial purpose of their foundation will pass evaluations and continue to operate, but those that have instigated competition for college admissions, against their purpose, will not pass and will lose their licences."

The eight schools in Seoul, including high schools affiliated with the prestigious Ewha Womans University and Hanyang University, failed to reach the required standard of 70 out of 100 marks in a performance test administered by the education office.

Five of the schools, including Ewha Womans University high school, failed the test in 2014 but were able to keep their status after the education ministry under the previous government of Park Geun-hye over-ruled the Seoul education office decision.

Angry protests

In June, when Sangsan and Ansan Dongsan schools heard they were to lose their licences there were angry protests from the parents and supporters of the system, calling for the education authorities’ decision to be withdrawn.

Sangsan High School founder Hong Sung-dae said the education chief for North Jeolla province, where it is situated, had required the school to gain 80 points despite the government ‘pass’ mark of 70. The school had received low marks on recruitment of disadvantaged pupils, which is part of the government’s scoring system, which meant it fell short by less than half a percentage point in achieving a ‘pass’ score of 80.

But the local authority said many regular schools exceed the 70 mark.

The stripping of licences is likely to provoke legal action, with critics saying the decisions were politically motivated.

In March the principals of 22 autonomous private high schools in Seoul said they would not accept the education authorities’ evaluation standards.

During a press conference at Ewha Girls' High School in central Seoul, they said in a statement: "Not a single school can satisfy the current standards of the education office, which shows its explicit intention of abolishing autonomous private high schools."

Park Sam-Ok, principal of Sangsan High School, has already indicated, in a press conference in the provincial capital of Jeonju in June, that the education office's evaluation had been made “unfairly and even illegally” with an aim to cancel the licence.

Quota suddenly changed

He said the school was supposed to have 3% of its intake from children in lower-income households, but the education office suddenly imposed a 10% quota and cut the school's points so that it fell below the 80 mark.

The main opposition parties have criticised the policy. “Korean education is stepping backward under this government, leaning to downward equalisation,” opposition Liberty Korea Party spokesman Min Kyung-wook said. The government’s “hostility toward the autonomous schools reflects its socialist views of education”, he added.

Jo Seoung-lae, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party, said in remarks carried by the Korean news agency, Yonhap, that rather than a stratified system, with population decline in Korea, the nation needs to discuss how to raise the overall capacity of students and prepare each individual for a technology-driven future.