February 6, 2024
SEOUL – South Korea on Monday unveiled plans to extend hours for primary schools’ extracurricular classes and make the classes available at all schools to make commuting parents’ life routines more logistically and financially sustainable.
The government has allocated a budget of 1.17 trillion won ($879 million) for this year, more than double the amount earmarked for last year, to allow any first grader to register for the extracurricular program later this year, dubbed Neulbom School.
Up to two hours every day will be provided for free for the first graders, who typically finish school around 1 p.m. Parents will be able to enroll their children in extended classes up to 8 p.m., for a fee.
Some 8,500 staff will be allocated to run the classes by the end of the year.
During a public debate Monday, President Yoon Suk Yeol stressed primary schools’ role in providing child care beyond the compulsory teaching hours set out in the national curriculum. The debate came alongside a New Year’s policy briefing by the Education Ministry.
“The schools must be given bigger roles and responsibilities to let the concept of ‘public care’ take root,” Yoon said at the event at an elementary school in Hanam, Gyeonggi Province, Monday.
Parents often struggle to match their working hours with their kids’ school schedules, forcing them to take a break from their careers or abandon them altogether.
Those who continue to work often have to send their children to private classes after school. In 2022, South Korean parents spent a total of 11.9 trillion won on their kids’ private-sector education.
Against this backdrop, South Korea brought forward plans for over 6,000 primary schools nationwide to offer Neulbom School — the state-sponsored before- and after-school programs — to first graders beginning in the fall semester. The Neulbom School classes will be accessible to students in all elementary school years by 2026.
These plans, confirmed by the Education Ministry in January, will alleviate the burden on South Korean parents and at the same time help the country raise its birth rate, Yoon claimed.
South Korea’s fertility rate came to an all-time low of 0.78 in 2022, the lowest among all member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Approximately 2.1 children born to a woman in her lifetime are necessary for a stable population.
Extracurricular classes in the Neulbom School program can be open anytime between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., excluding regular school hours, according to the government’s plan.
Under the standardized curriculum here, first graders start class at around 9 a.m. and end at 1 p.m. or no later than 1:40 p.m.
But starting in the second semester, any first grader will, for example, be able to apply for extra classes for free until 3 p.m. Those wanting their children to attend more classes at school can pay for them to stay until 5 p.m. or 8 p.m. Free dinner in the meantime will be given at the school for those wanting to stay in the evening.
They can also come to school early for before-school classes between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.
Previously, children from marginalized backgrounds were given priority access to out-of-hours classes, which usually ran no later than 5 p.m. Korea has some 340,000 first graders across the country.
Yoon brought up the survey in January by the Education Ministry, saying nearly 85 percent of soon-to-be parents of first graders were interested in having their children attend Neulbom School programs.
“Mothers often quit their jobs once their children begin elementary school,” Yoon said. “Having them go to a private institute is often costly. Community-based child care centers … give children fewer chances to play and learn. … The government will rid (the parents) of the burden.”
Before the public debate, Yoon attended a K-pop dance class and an abacus math class — part of Neulbom School programs provided at the elementary school Hanam, one of 459 institutions that applied for the state’s pilot project since last year.
The Yoon administration had previously sought to make the provision of the Neulbom School classes mandatory by 2025. The plan, however, was brought forward by a year, according to Education Minister Lee Ju-ho’s announcement in August.
As a result, all of some 6,000 elementary schools would have to provide Neulbom School programs to its students. By the first half, some 2,700 schools are to be prepared for the program, according to the Education Ministry.
The programs have been touted as a way to address the low birth rate, as the lack of child care provision in South Korea has discouraged dual-working households from having children. Nearly half of Korea’s more than 12 million married households are double-income, according to Statistics Korea.
The plan, however, has been criticized by teachers and school workers unions, who say it fails to address the increased workload it would create.
A coalition of 11 labor unions representing public servants in the education sector on Monday protested the plan, saying the government’s proposal is unrealistic and fails to define the roles and responsibilities of the parties concerned.
A survey from the Korea Teachers and Education Workers’ Union indicated on Jan. 30 that 97.1 percent of 5,877 respondents opposed the plan to have a school set up an office dedicated to Neulbom School programs.