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Ban, good schools draw families to Gangnam

Jan 23,2018
Cho Min-jung, 43, the mother of a middle school student from Mapo District, western Seoul, decided to move to Gangnam District, southern Seoul, after attending an info session for parents organized by a prep school.

“The speaker told us to move to Gangnam for our children’s education even if we have to borrow money,” she said. “Seoul’s School District 8 [Gangnam and Seocho District] is where we have to go once private schools are abolished.”

Public schools in Seoul’s School District 8 are traditionally known for sending students to the nation’s top universities, but according to Korea’s geographic jurisdiction laws, those who live in neighboring areas are usually the only ones entitled to apply for admission.

The government’s plan to eventually abolish all private and international schools has caused hundreds of families with elementary and middle school students to consider moving to Korea’s traditional education hub in the southern Seoul districts of Seocho, Songpa and Gangnam.

In a cabinet meeting on Dec. 26, the government revised the Enforcement Decree of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to abolish the early admission process of private, foreign language and international high schools for entry from 2019.

In Korea, graduating middle school students can apply to two high schools in their last fall semester, one school for each round of applications. Customarily, international, foreign language and private high schools accept applications in the first round, which usually take place in November, allowing rejected applicants to re-apply in December.

With the policy revision, however, students can only apply to international, foreign language and private high schools in the second round, as with all public schools. This will deter students from applying to private high schools, as failure to get in on the second round means they will be automatically assigned to any public high school with a vacancy.

The government hopes that with the change, fewer students will apply to private schools each year and public schools will improve in quality with more bright and talented students. If the student population of private, foreign language and international schools declines enough, they will be transformed into public high schools.

Currently, there are six private schools in Gangnam, Seocho and Songpa, and 17 in the rest of Seoul. Oh Se-mok, a principal at one of Gangnam’s private high schools, opposed the new policy, arguing that it will only lead to “more students flooding to School District 8.”

The idea of abolishing private high schools has been around since 2014, when Cho Hee-yeon, head of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, made it part of his campaign pledge.

Since then, more and more families have been moving to Gangnam, Songpa or Seocho, hoping to improve their children’s chances of getting into one of the regions’ public schools. As a result, though the student population decreased nationwide due to low fertility rates, the opposite happened in Gangnam.

Seoul districts beside Gangnam, Songpa and Seocho saw a decline of 4,875 elementary school students in 2015 while the three districts saw an increase of 1,085. Likewise, in 2016, the same areas saw an increase of 1,020 elementary and middle school students, while the rest of Seoul saw a decrease of 5,445 elementary school and 937 middle school students.

Because Gangnam is home to one of Korea’s most expensive areas, experts are concerned that the administration’s policy change will only help children wealthy enough to live in Gangnam take advantage of the high quality of education there.

BY SUNG SI-YOON, PARK HYUNG-SOO AND JEONG MIN-HEE [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]