Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Korean approach

The Department was (and probably still is full) of bean counters who love to tell teachers and principals that our education system should be more like those in South East Asia.

They flocked to junkets to China and Singapore and would come home to browbeat us about their results (completely forgetting that both countries have one-party rule, the further you get out of Shanghai the more rustic it becomes and that Singapore is the size of a postage stamp compared to Australia.)

Hopefully they watch Foreign Correspondent tonight:

 Thousands of South Korean families are leaving home and heading to countries like Australia to get an English-language education and gain an edge in the "brutally competitive" system back home. Hyemi and her two children - a seven-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl - left home in South Korea in 2013 to come and live in Australia.  She also left her husband behind, even though they are happily married.  Their decision was all about the kids - putting them into an Australian school to give them the best chance of getting ahead later on in South Korea's brutally competitive education system.  They are just one of an estimated 20,000 families who leave South Korea each year to go and live in an English-speaking country. At home, the Korean media has dubbed them "wild geese families" - a reference to the lengths these parents will go for the educational wellbeing of their children. 

South Korea regularly tops international academic league tables, but such brilliant results do not come without a cost. Students work extremely hard, sometimes up to 15 hours a day by the time they are preparing for their final exam, known locally as the "Sunung". Even at primary school kids put in long hours to ensure they get good grades.  They start the day off at school, but when the final bell sounds they do not go home, but on to a private cram school or "hagwon".  The result is these kids are academically at least two to three years ahead of their peers, but they are often also stressed out and depressed.  Some "wild geese families" want to escape the relentless Korean system; but for most it is about ensuring their children go back to South Korea with a huge educational advantage.  Not that they think the Australian education system is better: they are here purely to improve their English language skills. That is the real currency.


Usually it is the mother who travels with her children to the English-speaking country, leaving the father behind in South Korea to keep working and enable the travel to take place. According to Hyemi, the stress of living apart is offset by the knowledge she is preparing her kids with the kind of English language skills which will lead to good exam results, a place at a good Korean university and then a great job that makes the sacrifice worthwhile.  The top destination is the US, where international students are able to attend public schools for free.(Yeah you can pay big time here in Australia. Refer to a previous post) But the UK, New Zealand and Australia are also very popular - these "wild geese" South Korean kids are part of the foreign-student-fee-paying bonanza reported in some of the nation's public schools recently. Hyemi is happy to pay. Her aim is to get her children to get into a good private international school back in South Korea, which requires students spend at least three years abroad and pass tough English language tests. A lot of thought and effort has gone into this move.  Hyemi's husband owns and operates his own business back in South Korea, so unlike most "wild goose" Dads, he can choose how many times he travels to see his family through the year.  Normally, work commitments mean dads are tied to one annual visit. For so-called "penguin" dads, even that is not an option.  They cannot afford to visit because everything they earn is needed to keep the family afloat overseas.  There are now real concerns about the mental health of these men and the psychological impact this kind of separation has on marriages and family relationships.Hyemi thinks the extra visits make it harder for her children and the kids who only see their dad once a year are probably more settled.


In 2010, an estimated 500,000 "wild goose" dads lived alone in South Korea.  A recent online survey of these fathers showed loneliness and stress of their situation was taking a toll, with over 70 per cent admitting increased rates of depression, alcohol problems and inadequate nutrition.  Once they arrive, the families suffer their own hardships, often due to a lack of proper planning before leaving South Korea.  When their English is not strong enough, kids struggle to fit in and mums become isolated and depressed.  Language and resettlement services are available in Australia, but according to Dr Bronwen Dalton, a Korea expert at the University of Technology in Sydney, there has been minimal uptake.  Newly-arrived Korean "wild geese" families tend to seek out other Korean speakers and often their lives and activities are centred on a local Korean church.  It can stop them from developing a sense of social connectedness to Australians and Australian life.  For families who travel with older children, after a few years they realise they cannot return home even if they want to. The kids are now too far behind their Korean counterparts and it would be too difficult for them to re-enter the Korean system - a temporary stay becomes permanent and the family is stuck between two worlds. Although there is often not much sympathy for "wild geese" families back in South Korea, the government is trying to do more to stop their migration in the first place.  

There is a push to improve English language teaching and create alternative schools which offer a different style of teaching: less competitive and more student-focused.  Former education minister Lee Ju Ho also admits there needs to be more emphasis on devising a curriculum based on creative thinking and increasing communication skills. Hyemi is really looking forward to going back to South Korea next year and being a proper family again.  Despite her own careful planning and her husband's frequent visits, she has been lonely and has found being a single parent difficult at times.  Even so, when her kids are older, she is prepared to do it all again.  When they reach high school, she will give them the choice of staying in South Korea or coming back to Australia to finish their education here.

Watch Foreign Correspondent: Education Gangnam Style at 8:00pm on ABC TV.


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