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Korea to stress safety in new school curriculum

South Korea’s Education Ministry will introduce a new subject in elementary schools on how to deal with various safety hazards including traffic and maritime accidents, officials said Monday.

The ministry announced that the new safety program ― conducted for an hour each week for first- and second-grade students in elementary schools ― will cover traffic safety, disaster management, self-protection and miscellaneous safety hazards in everyday lives.

“Rather than simply focusing on imparting knowledge (on safety), the new subject will be activity-based so that students can naturally acquire a safety-first attitude,” a ministry official said.

The plan was revealed in the ministry’s public hearing for the revision of the education curriculum for elementary, middle and high schools, held at the Korea National University of Education in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province. Monday’s hearing covered common subjects for elementary school students, Korean language, Chinese characters and foreign languages.

The creation of the separate subject was in response to nationwide calls for a safety education program after last year’s sinking of Sewol ferry that left 305 dead or missing, 250 of whom were high school students on a field trip.

While most of the blame fell on the ship’s crew ― including the captain ― who left the vessel without evacuating the passengers, experts across the country also pointed out that the Korean education system failed to equip students with survival skills that could have helped them in the situation.

Hong Hoo-jo, a professor of education at Korea University, said schools should be responsible to more systematically teach students how to protect themselves and their friends in emergencies.

The ministry also said it is planning to cut the burden of academic work for English and Korean languages, two key subjects, as well as the annual college entrance exam known here as the Suneung.

“We assess that (the new curriculum) will cut the amount students that have to study by nearly 20 percent,” a ministry official said.

In keeping with the trend of reducing the studying burden, the ministry is planning to abolish a curved grading system for its Suneung English exam. The current grading system sorts students into one of nine ratings based on their relative score.

In order to reduce what President Park Geun-hye described as “excessive English education,” the ministry will introduce an absolute grading system, which rates students based on the numerical grade.

In addition, the ministry said Korean language in the new curriculum will incorporate a developmental process of communication skills. For example, the elementary school lessons will be primarily based on speaking and hearing, while reading and writing skills will be stressed in high school.

By Yoon Min-sik