Academic Pressure Pushing S. Korean Students To Suicide
- Articles, Blog

Academic Pressure Pushing S. Korean Students To Suicide

It’s famous for its youth culture and wacky Pop videos. In the land of K-pop and economic miracle, making it to the top is a national obsession. But there’s a flip side to all these fun. Students are coached to the point of exhaustion. Failure is not an option. The country may be booming. But what’s all these pressure doing to the kids? Cha Kil-yong looks every bit of a K-pop star. Sharing the limelight with South Korea’s biggest idols. Inspiring students as they are about to take their make or break final exams. In education obsessed South Korea, Cha is a top-ranked Maths teacher. And here, that makes him a celebrity. with an annual income of $8 million dollars. He doesn’t actually teach in a bricks and mortar school. He has made his fortune by running an online cram school or “hagwon” Part of the country’s striving $20 billion private education business. We’re catching up with Cha on a typical day, as he gets ready to record a lecture. First up, he gets his makeup done. Then the hair. Today is the firecracker style. Cha says his students, his fans like it this way And it’s on to his studio for the performance. So this is your office. It’s impressive. Cha has a variety of props, masks, costumes and wigs, he’ll wear depending on his moods. Entertainment is a fundamental part of the learning process. Hello. But it’s a very serious business. Cha’s main focus is the SevenEdu website which has 3 million registrations and at any one time, 300,000 students will be logged on. They pay $30 a month for access. He’s recorded 1500 hours of Maths lectures for all grades. Ranging from the conceptual to tips on how to get better exam results. Cha wants to revolutionise education. Bring it online and make it much more accessible. In South Korea, education has become a sought after commodity. Cha’s SevenEdu is being promoted like the latest movie blockbuster. And Cha is building an empire. Ultimately, he plans to go global. In the upmarket area of Gangnam in Seoul, it’s 7.30am. And Kim Song-hyeong is just beginning her day. She’s in her critical final year, preparing for the CSAT test or “Seneung”; an exam that will determine her future. South Korean education is the envy of the rest of the world. Regularly topping international test in Maths and literacy. And that’s because these students study hard. On average up they’ll do 15 hours a day. It’s the first lesson of the day. Some of these kids have been in hagwon or cramp school until ten or eleven o’clock the night before. Song-hyeung is a model student at one of Seoul’s highest ranking public schools. She’s gone from the 150th to one of the top five. She regularly meets with her form teacher to make sure she’s on track. A place in the right university will mean a good job and hopefully a good marriage. There’s little time to hang out with friends. Lunch time is one of the few opportunities they get to socialise. But friends can also be competitors. For this group, even their best is never good enough. When school ends at four o’clock, it’s not time to go home. The next shift starts and most will go on to cram schools. Song-hyeung heads off to study on her own. It’s tough. But in South Korea, this is normal. She knows just one wrong answer is CSAT exam can mean success or failure in life. And in preparation, she is tested and re-tested. She doesn’t leave for home until just before 11p.m. And across Seoul and the country, 100,000 hagwons are about to close. In this street, there is about a dozen hagwons and it’s still going on. The government is sending out patrols to try and enforce closing times. And they have even tried to ban hagwons. But with every attempts to try and rein them in, they seem just to come back bigger and stronger. On the weekend, we catch up with Song-hyeung’s mum, Nam Sun-joo. She’s taken a difficult decision not to put her daughter into a cram school Ho Jae-woo is making his way John Roll Academy, an elite cram school. He has to make every moment counts. Even as he walks to the school, he is preparing for the first test of the day. The nineteen year-old was on track for a place at one of South Korea’s top universities. But he missed out by just two marks last year. So he’s taking the CSAT again to make sure that he’ll get in this time round. Even to get into this cram school is a feat in itself. Only 1 in 50 pass the entrance exam. Students are tested endlessly and drilled for twelve hours a day. The cram school has five floors with twenty classrooms on each. There are regular patrols to make sure they all stay awake and their conditions are perfect for studying. If he is lucky, Jae-woo will be in bed by midnight. Ready to repeat the process again tomorrow. At the subway, he can finally unwind just for a while All these study and hard work has paid off for the country. From the destitution of the 1960s, it’s been transformed into a booming high-tech industrial powerhouse, that exports phones, cars and video games. Just over ten years ago, South Korea joined the trillion dollar club of world economies. Now it’s the twelfth largest. For those who don’t succeed, there’s a tragic cost. South Korea has the highest rate of suicide in the world. It’s growing the fastest among the ten to nineteen year-olds. This is one of the few places that has been set up to save young lives. It’s the start of the day at Celium Shelter and the two boys who have come in overnight have being introduced. There’s a lack of counselling for kids in South Korea. Tragically, some say suicide is the only option. This eighteen year-old boy ran away from home because he couldn’t live up to the family’s expectations. In a recent survey, about 50% of the country’s teenagers said they have suicidal thoughts. And cited school pressure as the major cause. It’s not good enough to be brilliant. Students also need to be beautiful. Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Among top performing students, the kids are looking for something to set them apart. And surgery is the latest thing. The boom in plastic surgery started with notions of western beauty. But now it’s been driven by the doll-like features of the Korean K-pop stars. On graduation, many parents give their children the gift of plastic surgery. A new nose or rounder eyes can give them the edge in the job market. Nineteen year-old Chae Gi-hae has succeeded in getting into the right university to study hospitality. Now she wants to change her appearance to secure the best job after graduation. Chae’s mother is paying for her to have her eyes widened. Dr. Lee Yang-joon does about eight procedures a day. The most popular are nose jobs and eyelids surgery to make the eyes rounder. There’s a pushback now in South Korea against all the pressure being brought to bear on kids. Five hours drive south of Seoul, a bold education experiment is happening. An alternative school. Tae-pong School puts the students at the central of learning. Creative thinking and communication are the guiding principles here. South Korea is starting to set up dozens of schools like this. Classes are discussion-based and students are encouraged to come up with their own answers and solutions to problems. It’s Jin Say-han’s second year in Tae-pong. They don’t study fifteen hours a day here. But 80% of students do get into university. Not the top ones but importantly to a course they want to do. Say-han says his dream of being an architect can be realised here. But grinding hard work remains the mantra in most schools. Cha Kil-yong superstar online Maths teacher epitomises South Korea’s education obsession. Like many, he works eighteen hours a day, with little time for his young family. Here, business comes first.

About James Carlton

Read All Posts By James Carlton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *