Around 50 percent of children aged three to five had been enrolled in preschool in South Korea. Near 100 percent of all five-year-olds are enrolled in some type of preschool program. In 2001, the figure was about 80 percent. [Source: Statista, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Enrollment rate in early childhood education in South Korea: 92 percent of 3 year-olds; 94 percent of 4 year-olds; 97 percent of 5 year-olds. (2018 OECD).

The number of preschoolers increased dramatically in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. In 1980 there were 66,433 children attending 901 kindergartens or preschools. Only 7.3 percent of 5 year olds were in school. By 1987 there were 397,020 children in 7,792 institutions. The number of kindergartens grew almost tenfold by 1999 with 535,379 children attending. This was 43.2 percent of 5 year olds. MOE projected the enrollment at kindergarten wou;ld reach 100 percent by 2005. [Source: Library of Congress Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The number of kindergarten and preschool teachers rose from 3,339 to 11,920 during the same period. The overwhelming majority of these teachers — approximately 92 percent — were women. This growth was attributable to several factors: Ministry of Education encouragement of preschool education, the greater number of women entering the work force, growth in the number of nuclear families where a grandparent was often unavailable to take care of children, and the feeling that kindergarten might give children an "edge" in later educational competition. Kindergartens often paid homage to the expectations of parents with impressive graduation ceremonies, complete with diplomas, academic caps, and gowns. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “In the 1970s and 1980s — amid rapid industrialization — the school-age population was heavily concentrated in urban areas, while rural schools became underpopulated. Overcrowded classes caused some city schools to resort to the double shift system, which was considered a major setback. The government imposed an education tax in 1982 to improve school finances and raise teacher pay. As a result, the number of elementary school students per class has dropped to 35.8 in 2000, compared with 62.1 in 1970. In 2000, the student to teacher ratio in elementary schools was 28.7 compared with 56.9 in 1970 (KEDI). [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Pre-Primary Education in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Early childhood education in South Korea is designed for the national interest — that is, not only to prepare young children to become healthy and intelligent citizens, but also to protect the welfare of poor children and of working mothers, whose number has increased with rapid industrialization. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Early childhood education has developed partly from the nursery system, the structure of which is entwined with welfare policy. The nursery system was established in 1952 and in 1962 put under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Welfare in accordance with the Act for Infant Welfare. During the Fifth Republic in the early 1980s, the Integrated Plan for Infant/Early Childhood Education was developed as part of a national agenda to enhance the image of a "Welfare State." The new Act for Infant/Early Childhood Education in fact stipulated that infant and early childhood education facilities in South Korea be made up of kindergarten under the jurisdiction of MOE and the New Village Nursery under the Ministry of Interior. It is also important to note that infant education via nursery facilities was instituted, in the wake of Korea's full-scale industrialization, for the relief of working mothers. Hence the wealthier classes have chosen mostly private kindergartens and preschools and the poorer classes, mostly the government-run nurseries, such as the Children's House and New Village Nursery.

“Kindergarten education is not subsidized and depends on private resources. The ratio between private and public kindergartens is 7 to 3. Preschool education, a rather recent phenomenon, has mostly been initiated by religious, social, and private organizations. Because it is often considered inessential, the preschool enrollment rate has generally been low. In an effort to raise enrollment, the government has enacted legislative bases for preschool education, such as the Kindergarten Facilities Standard Ordinance (1969), Kindergarten Curriculum Ordinance (1969), Preschool Promotion Act (1982), and the first and second Promotion Plans for Preschool Education. To raise the level of preschool education to that of other advanced nations, the government has also developed and disseminated teaching materials and tools and created teacher training and administrative support systems.

Day Care, PreSchool and Kindergarten in South Korea

Day care centers in South Korea are called “orinijibs” in Korean and vary quite a bit in what they offer and what facilities and orientation they have. Some orinijibs can take children as young as 100 days old and some can take children from age three to seven. Day care for babies is called “nori-bang”. “Yuchiwon” is the more like a pre-school. The government covers part of the expenses. With coverage, the fee is about 400,000 won (US$350) a month. Without coverage, the cost is generally between 400,000 to 800,000 won. Popular places are hard to get into and have waiting lists with hundreds of names. [Source:, January 12, 2018]

According to Child care centres are called Euh Lin E Jip, and they are run by local governments, companies, non-profit organisations, as well as private institutions. Parents decide which centre suits their needs and then contact that centre directly. Care centres focus on caring for children, but most have some educational classes for children who are over two years old. They are open from 07:30 to 19:30. Parents can choose the amount of time their children spend at a child care centre, but the fee paid is the same, regardless of the number of hours the child spends at the centre. [Source:]

On the difference between daycare and kindergarten, reports: “The main difference between the two is that a kindergarten serves as a pre-school preparing children for elementary school, while a daycare only offers childcare services and a developmental program for children. There are independent kindergartens and kindergartens attached to elementary schools, Korean and International kindergartens, and private and public kindergartens. Kindergartens are harder to get into in comparison with daycare centers. You have more chances of getting a spot at a private daycare or kindergarten rather than the public options. Daycare centers are usually open for application almost all year around, while kindergartens usually have a specific period when you can apply. [Source:]

Primary Schools in South Korea

Primary school enrollment is near 100 percent for age-eligible students. The student-to-teacher ratio for primary school was at about 31:1 in the early 2000s. At that time were 5721 primary schools with 3,794,447 students (an enrollment rate: of 94 percent) and compulsory education was nine years. There were 122,743 primary teachers: It is estimated that about 97 percent of all students completed their primary education in 2003. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In 1945, the year Korea was liberated from the Japanese, there were 2,807 elementary schools with the total enrollment of 1,570,000 students . By the late 1960s, the primary school enrollment was near 100 percent. In the late 1980s, primary schools were coeducational, although coeducation was quite rare at the middle-school and high-school levels at that time. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990; Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Enrollment figures for 1987 on the primary school level were 4,771,722 pupils in 6,531 schools, with 130,142 teachers. A decline from the 1980 figure of 5,658,002 pupils was caused by population trends. Some 54 percent of primary school teachers were male. As of 1999, elementary and branch schools numbered 5,544 and 739, respectively, with a total enrollment of 3,935,000. Thus, while the number of schools doubled, the enrollment rate of the relevant cohort rose from 64 percent in 1945 to almost 100 percent in 1999 (MOE 2000).

Primary Education in South Korea

Primary education has been compulsory since 1945 and has been free since 1979. At the age of six, children are admitted to a school in their residential area. Once children enter primary schools, they automatically advance to the next grade each year. There is no holding a student back a year even if they are abysmal students. Instead they attend special classes within the school. An accelerated grade advancement system was recently introduced to allow a gifted and talented child to skip a grade. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The primary curriculum consists of nine principal subjects: moral education, Korean language, social studies, mathematics, science, physical education, music, fine arts, and practical arts. English-language instruction now begins in the third grade. The major objectives, as stated in a 1996 background report by the Ministry of Education, are "to improve basic abilities, skills and attitudes; to develop language ability and civic morality needed to live in society; to increase the spirit of cooperation; to foster basic arithmetic skills and scientific observation skills; and to promote the understanding of healthy life and the harmonious development of body and mind.” The seventh annual curriculum, which began implementation in March 2000, kept these basic goals but updated many elements to reflect changes in Korean society. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

Korean children formally begin learning English in the third grade in public school. According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “As part of a globalization policy adopted by the government of President Kim Young Sam, MOE made an important innovation in Korean elementary education. Since 1997, English has been taught two hours a week in elementary schools, beginning with the third grade.

Elementary School in South Korea

Korean elementary schools resemble American elementary schools in many ways. The classrooms look similar and students push and shove and fight in the halls. Young elementary school students often attend school for only half a day, while older elementary school children often stay in school until around 4:00pm.

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle wrote for the Asia Society: In 1996, we “visited an elementary school of 700 students. Located in Ch'unchon, a “small” city of 200,000, northeast of Seoul, the school had the familiar large, bare playground and meeting space, along with typical class sizes of approximately 50 students. In contrast to the high schools we visited, this school’s halls were decorated with bulletin board displays, banners, photographs, trophy cases, historical exhibits, and examples of student work. Similarly, the classrooms in this worn but well-kept building were covered with displays of children’s work.

“The school is famous for its speed skaters, and many alumni who have gained prominence in sports have given their trophies to the school to encourage today’s students.The school library, according to the principal, needs more books, given the size of the student body. He suggested, however, that this school was fairly representative of Korean elementary schools, except for its well-equipped television studio, which students use to produce school programs. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

Elementary School Teaching in South Korea

Before they learn basic arithmetic or how to read, Korean first graders are taught how to work together in groups. Classes of 30 to 40 students are typically broken up into smaller groups of five or six students each. Tasks are usually assigned to the group rather than individuals and an emphasis is placed on teaching responsibility and problem solving through team work. Often when a individual does something wrong, his group is punished.

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle wrote for the Asia Society: Elementary schools put more emphasis on art, music, and physical education than secondary schools do. In addition, at this level more time — roughly the same amount that a Korean high school student spends preparing for college entrance tests — is devoted to extracurricular activities. The music teacher has more than 50 violins to be used by students in a challenging classical music program. One room stocked with stringed and percussion instruments is devoted to traditional Korean music. Students begin studying science in the second grade, and the school’s science laboratory has several student workstations. A large computer lab is available for classes, and new computers with Pentium processors had just arrived to replace the machines currently in use.

School tradition and achievement is very important to Korea's principals. One high school has a large stone marker engraved with its motto, “Diligence and Wisdom,” and statues adorn the school grounds. One depicts a standing young student looking intently into the eyes of a seated female teacher. The other is of Admiral Sun-shin Yi, the heroic sixteenth-century warrior who designed and built a fleet of iron-plated "turtle boats" that were instrumental in the defeat of a Japanese invasion. In the principal's office, one wall has photographs and statements noting the qualifications of the staff. The entrance to the school is lined with pictures of past principals and a large inscription, "Teachers create the future." [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

Special Education in South Korea

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The Special Education Promotion Act, enacted in 1977 and amended in 1994, guarantees that students with disabilities receive appropriate and equal educational opportunity with special educational curricula and approaches to enhance their personal development, future employability, and social participation. According to the September 2000 National Assembly Report, special education's share of the budget ranged from 1.5 to 1.9 percent between 1995 and 2000. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“It is estimated that 2.4 percent of all school age children need special education. Only about half of severely handicapped children are enrolled in special schools. Some 44 percent of the mildly handicapped are enrolled in special classes at regular schools; the rest attend regular classes (OECD).

“To better serve the disabled, several measures have been adopted since 1988. Training programs in special education are offered to regular teachers, and special education courses are compulsory in teachers' colleges. The revision of the Special Education Promotion Bill in 1994 guaranteed early education for the disabled at regular kindergartens. Furthermore, reflecting public sentiment, a law to promote vocational employment of the handicapped was enacted.

“In 1999, some 123 special education institutions served a total enrollment of 24,091 severely handicapped children, who were taught by 4,244 special education teachers — a student to teacher ratio of less than 6 to 1. Children with lesser impediments are taught in special education classes in regular schools; in 1999 there were 26,178 such students taught by 3,812 teachers in 3,764 special classes, which were offered by 2,990 regular schools (MOE). As of April 2000, according to the National Assembly Report, there were 129 special education schools — 13 times the 1962 total of 10 schools and more than double the 53 in 1979, only 2 years after the passage of the Special Education Promotion Act in 1977.

“The National Institute for Special Education, established in 1994, which is in charge of research and development in special education, supplies teaching and learning materials and trains teachers of students with disabilities. Special education teachers, who are deemed qualified either by passing an examination for special education or through supplementary in-service training for special teachers, are assigned to kindergartens and elementary and secondary schools. In addition to 20 graduate schools of education, 4 national colleges, 10 private colleges, and 3 special graduate schools train special education teachers.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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