There are many laws that do not fit the reality. Education is no exception, with the controversial act on the normalization of public education and regulation of prior learning being a good example.
The act, which took effect in 2014 mainly to curb private tutoring that imposes heavy study burdens on students and financial burdens on parents, came into the spotlight recently due to its ban on some after-school English classes.
English education in elementary school now begins in third-grade and providing first- and second-graders with English classes violates the act on prior learning.
But at the time when the act took effect, many first- and second-graders had already been taking English classes provided as part of the after-school education programs.
Parents protested against the ban, arguing that it would only force them to send their children to the more expensive private academies. The Education Ministry gave in, and added a special provision to the act to retain the English classes for the first- and second-graders. But the ministry made a big mistake: it set the provision to expire in three years.
The ministry said now that the three-year moratorium is over, all after-school English classes for grades one and two will be banned from March. Ministry officials base their decision on the argument that the English classes have little effect in enhancing students’ English skills and that it goes against the ban on prior learning.
This is yet another case of bureaucratic rigidity. You don’t need be an expert to find that the past three years has changed nothing when it comes to the English education of young students.
English still is one of the most favored subjects among Korean students and parents. The after-school programs, which utilize school facilities and other resources, offer quality classes for a monthly tuition of 50,000 won to 60,000 won, while private academies charge two to four times more.
For this and other advantages, more than 135,000 students, about 15 percent of the total of the first- and second-graders, are taking the after-school English classes across the country.
A recent survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation backed the program’s advocates. Nearly 72 percent of parents and 79 percent of schools surveyed in the poll supported retaining English classes in the after-school programs for the first- and second-graders. Their satisfaction level was 4.27 on a scale of 0 to 5.
These show that the program has become an effective alternative to English classes at private academies. Private tutoring prospers because of the lack or shortage of options for taking quality education at a low cost. The after-school class is one such option.
Meanwhile, the controversy awakens once again to problems of the Korean bureaucracy in handling English education. Granted, there may be different views about when is the best time for children to start English education.
But is it really wise to have a law that commands all the schools in the country to start English education at a certain grade? Moreover, the act is grossly out of touch with reality, as many preschool children are already taking English lessons before they even enter elementary school.
In this era of globalization, English proficiency is one of the key components of national competitiveness. Koreans’ English skills have yet to catch up with the country’s economic advancement. Removing unnecessary education regulations would be one of the best short cuts to addressing the problem.