In South Korea protest against plans to teach children in primary school from the age of five

International 3 August, 2022

Sharp criticism in South Korea of the proposal to raise the age of admission to primary school by one year, from 6 to 5 years, has caused outrage in the country. President Yoon Seok-yeol must now clarify the explosive situation since the announcement of this project on July 29. Education Minister Park Soon-ae sees this as a way to «ensure safe and quality education by integrating children into public education at an early stage».

The goal is to specifically target children from disadvantaged families, while it is believed that the public sector is able to offer them real support. The goal is also to give young people the opportunity to enter the labor market earlier and thereby solve the employment problems caused by the falling birth rate. Seduced by this idea, conservative President Yun Seok-el called for its «speedy implementation». Ms. Park would like to apply it in stages, starting from the beginning of the 2025 academic year.

But Ms. Park’s proposal mobilizes all education unions against her, from the conservative Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations (KFTA) to the Progressive Korean Teachers’ Union (KTU). Thirty-six educational organizations filed petitions and organized a demonstration in front of the presidential building in Seoul on August 1: parents and teachers are concerned about the risks of such a measure for children’s development.

«The requirement to enter primary school at the age of 5 is inappropriate, given the level of cognitive and emotional development of children. It can also have negative side effects, because children will face strong competition earlier when entering universities and private schools», – the trade unions explained in a letter sent to the president. For these organizations, five-year-olds should be able to play, run and develop, and not spend days sitting in class.

The proposal also angers companies in the influential private education sector. Managers of private nurseries worry about their income, because 5-year-olds make up 40 to 50% of their «clientele». At the political level, the measure requires a change in the law on education, which has not changed since its adoption in 1949. However, criticism is already coming from the progressive ranks, in the majority in the National Assembly.

«The country already allows students to enter primary school a year earlier. But the number of 5-year—olds entering primary school in 2021 did not exceed 537 people compared to 9707 in 2009», – the Justice Party responded.