[Reporter’s notebook] How to harness Korean kids’ ‘dreams and gifts’

Posted on : 2015-05-27 16:43 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Parents suffering under a system where excellence is demanded, but not even a pair of skates is provided

“We need education that teaches skating to Kim Yu-na and swimming to Park Tae-hwan.”

This was the message from Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Hwang Woo-yea during a May 7 visit to his alma mater. Hwang mentioned the two sports stars repeatedly while advertising the “free semester” system as a way of harnessing the “dreams and gifts” of middle school students young enough to be his grandchildren. His heart seems to have been in the right place, and his words weren’t exactly wrong. But the reaction from students’ parent was sharp to say the least.

“He wants me to ‘teach skating to Kim Yu-na’ without offering to buy a single pair of skates.”

Until recently, the mother had been teaching her daughter figure skating herself. The girl may not quite have the gifts of a Kim Yu-na, but the financial burden was big: 350,000 won (US$320) a month for two lessons a week, 200,000 won (US$180) for skates, 50,000 to 60,000 won (US$45-54) each for the tops and bottoms to the outfits. The daughter’s dreams and gifts brought out the mother’s ambitions - and now the family is struggling to pay the bills. The equipment costs, including professional-quality skates, have doubled. Every new level she progressed to from beginner to Level 8 brought with it at least three to four lessons a week. Competition outfits and choreography eat up another 500,000 won (US$450) at a time. Typically, learners at Level 2 to 3 and higher regard the sport as their area of expertise. But this mother was downgrading her daughter’s dream to a hobby just as she was knocking on the door of Level 2.

“Her skill alone just isn’t enough,” she concluded. “You need the parents’ money, the passion, and the persistence.”


“Now you listen to me. From here on, it’s all arithmetic.”

This is the catchphrase delivered by entertainment agency president Na Young-hee on the hit miniseries “Producer” every time one of her clients overschedules or a clueless producer requests a meeting without a quote. It also sums up the mother’s attitude about the administration’s free semester policy.

Swimming is the same as figure skating. Even hobby-level lessons from a private children‘s pool run 120,000 won (US$110) a month. The neighborhood where she lives has a pool with clean, warm water. Lessons are a steal: two a week for 35,000 won (US$32) a month. The competition is fierce. The pool runs on a first come, first served basis, and neighborhood parents camp out in front the night before to register the children.

Something happened along the way in South Korea. Parents today are now channeling too much of their resources and efforts into finding “dreams and gifts” for their children. The problem, in a nutshell, is an acute shortage of education facilities and programs with public school support. And in a society where even dreams and gifts become stratified, there is little chance of developing the competitive talent of a Kim Yu-na or Park Tae-hwan. In a society where 80-to-20 odds are less a concern than 1-to-99, families that chase impossible dreams of skill end up without food on the table. This also explains why so many children, when asked for their “dream,” give a stable job like civil servant.

As a result of all this, the free semester system is turning out differently from the government’s hopes in regions where education fever runs high. Instead it’s becoming a “private academy semester” system. It’s the result of a policy being rushed into implementation without suitable aptitude programs in place. Many parents see the free semester as a time their middle school-age children could end up spending goofing around or dating without the strain of tests. Rather than risk wasting that precious time when they could be preparing for special purpose high schools or university entrance exams, they keep them locked up in tight private academy schedules.

Once it becomes rooted, the free semester system could offer a way for children to get away from exam stress and relax mentally and physically. Parents agree on the need for it, but they also see it as foolhardy to yank their children away from their desks in a society where the Bell curve applies to dreams and gifts too. There‘s also little in the way of a Plan B for making a living if the young one doesn’t end up the next Kim Yu-na. Under the circumstances, how many parents are going to bet on their child’s dreams and gifts, all while trusting in a government that won’t pay for skates?

Hwang Woo-yea’s position as Deputy Prime Minister puts him in charge of coordinating education, social, and cultural policy. What he needs to do for the sake of children’s dreams and gifts is encourage the kind of social change that will help the free semester system operate the way it’s intended. On balance, that’s the arithmetic for South Korea’s mothers and their gripes with the system.


By Jeon Jung-yoon, staff reporter


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

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