Fewer than 400,000 kids will begin elementary school in Korea this year as population dwindles

Posted on : 2024-01-04 17:04 KST Modified on : 2024-01-04 17:04 KST
Declining new enrollments translate into issues of shrinking school sizes and imbalanced student distribution


Parents and children walk through an elementary school in Daegu for a gathering following enrollment in February 2023. (Yonhap)
Parents and children walk through an elementary school in Daegu for a gathering following enrollment in February 2023. (Yonhap)


The number of children eligible to begin elementary school in Seoul fell below 60,000 for the first time this year amid an annual decline in the number of children being born in Korea.

Nationwide, the number of children entering elementary school this year is expected to fall below 400,000. As student numbers sharply decline, local metropolitan and provincial educational authorities are finding themselves in a deepening quandary over what to do to prevent shrinking school sizes and imbalanced student distributions from negatively impacting educational conditions.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education announced Wednesday that the number of students eligible to enter elementary school in the city for the 2024 academic year stood at 59,492, a decrease of 10.3% from the year before.

As recently as 2020, the number of eligible students was 71,356. After dropping below 70,000 to reach 66,324 in 2023, the number has plummeted below 60,000 just a year later.

The category of eligible students consists of 6-year-old students who are to begin their elementary education this year, namely those born between January and December 2017. The total also includes those who deferred enrollment last year and those enrolling early.

Because of cases in which students relocate overseas prior to enrollment or opt to defer their matriculation, the actual number of first-year elementary school students is expected to be even lower.

Declining new enrollments translate into issues of shrinking school sizes and imbalanced student distribution.

Even in Seoul, which is considered to be better off than other regions, a total of 73 out of 613 elementary schools — or 12% — are counted as “small,” which means a student body of 240 or fewer.

“When student numbers are low, that makes it difficult to operate educational curricula that require community activities,” a Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education official explained.

“It becomes harder to separate students into teams for athletic competitions, and school relationships become limited because students are spending time with the same classmates for several academic years,” they added.

In Seoul’s case, wide disparities in student numbers could be observed across different districts.

According to data from the capital’s educational office, a total of 3,213 students were eligible for elementary school matriculation this year in Seocho District, which averaged to 146 per school. In the central Jung District, the total was just 513, for an average of 57 per school.

The result is a situation where areas that have large apartment complexes or many highly preferred upper-level schools are facing fears over overcrowded classes, while other regions are worried that dwindling student numbers might result in schools closing altogether.

Last October, the Seoul education authority made plans to establish “urban-model campuses” to alleviate issues with imbalanced increases and decreases in the school-age population.

Ordinarily, the establishment and operation of an elementary school requires between 600 and 900 students and a total of 36 classes. The idea behind the campuses is to address class overcrowding and prevent school closures by adopting a more flexible system of small-scale campuses.

This year, the number of elementary schools throughout South Korea — including Seoul — is expected to fall below 400,000 for the first time.

“We’re estimating that 396,533 students will be entering elementary school nationwide this year,” a Ministry of Education official told the Hankyoreh in a telephone interview.

A total of 413,056 students are eligible to begin elementary school across South Korea this year. The prediction took into account the fact that normally around 96% of eligible students actually do enroll.

The nationwide number of students entering elementary school (as of April) has been in a trend of decline since reaching 472,947 in 2019. As recently as last year, it remained above 400,000 at 401,752.

The drop is the result of the number of children born in 2017, which is the cohort scheduled to enter elementary school this year. At 357,771, that total was down by fully 48,000 from 406,243 births a year earlier.

Falling student numbers also threaten to devastate more rural regions, which are struggling with aging populations and stagnant economies.

An official with the North Gyeongsang Provincial Office of Education explained, “Because North Gyeongsang Province has so many mountainous areas, schools here don’t just exist to teach students.”

“In [small] townships, people have the attitude that once the schools are gone, it basically spells the death of that community,” they added. The perception is that as schools are combined and shut down, this will only accelerate the decline in the younger population raising children, which will hasten the region’s decline in turn.

This is why the offices of education around the country have been working hard to preserve education quality by maintaining schools at a certain size and underscoring the advantages of smaller schools and their ability to provide more support to individual students.

Since 2019, North Gyeongsang Province’s educational office has been operating a “free school district system” for small schools. Under this system, the districts for small schools have been expanded so that students from different neighborhoods can attend without a change of address.

As of this March, the provincial office for South Jeolla is planning to pay education allowances for elementary school students in the province to use at bookstores, stationery shops, and other locations.

Jang Jae-wan, who supervises the South Jeolla educational authority’s school-age population policy team, explained, “Since nearly half the schools in South Jeolla Province are small schools, we’re working to encourage students to stay at the small schools through measures like ‘study abroad’ in rural communities and the payment of allowances.”

By Kim Yoon-ju, staff reporter; Kim Min-je, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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