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Mad rush to school Korean kids in English

The Straits Times, 13 January 2001

Parents are forking out exorbitant amounts to enrol their pre-schoolers in English-medium kindergartens, in preparation for the Internet age

SEOUL—With the dawn of the Internet age and the trend towards globalisation, Koreans see proficiency in English as a crucial skill for survival. And parents are pinning all their hopes on their pre-school children.

In posh southern Seoul and the satellite cities of Kyonggi Province, English-language kindergartens are in vogue.

Officials at the Office of Education in Seoul and Kyonggi Province estimate that there are more than 100 such kindergartens in those areas and about 300 nationwide.

Children between the age of four and six are taught basic reading, writing, grammar and conversation by native English speakers.

Parents cough up about 600,000 won (S$900) a month for these schools and a one-time 150,000 won entrance fee, both of which are roughly three times more than the cost of ordinary kindergartens.

One kindergarten in southern Seoul, started only three years ago, has already turned a big enough profit to renovate its classrooms and build separate blocks for elementary and pre-school classes.

The owner charges between 800,000 to 1 million won per head for each of the over 1,000 enrolled students.

Parents who are not so well-off complain that such schools are widening social disparities.

‘If I can’t afford to pay, does that mean my children don’t deserve to learn English and get a better chance in life?’ wonders a 31-year-old mother in Inchon.

Less affluent parents, looking to give their children a bilingual edge, often save their money for summer and winter vacations, to send their ‘deprived’ children to English-language camps, which can cost millions of won but are, according to camp organisers, more intense and therefore, more worthwhile.

However, not all native speakers working at these camps are qualified to teach.

Just recently, Immigration officials announced that they had expelled 34 foreigners who had been teaching at one of these camps without proper credentials.

Kindergartens and camp organisers are sometimes willing to break the law because just one summer or winter session can bring them hundreds of millions of won in profit.

— Bernama