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As young people in South Korea struggle with the consequences of their ultra high pressure education system Sean goes to Seoul to share how Sands treats social development, emotional literacy and academic progress as an inseparable whole. This is his account of his trip….

I have just returned from a South Korean Education Conference hosted by the Ministry of Education and Youth. We thought hard before I accepted the invitation and concluded that by involving students in preparing my presentation and in sharing my experiences with them on my return the enrichment out-weighed the loss of a week’s humanities lessons and my invaluable(??) presence in the school.

In South Korea a generation of high pressure, result-driven schooling has resulted in the collapse of the health of their youth. The country’s educational philosophy is underpinned by Confucian ideals which shape both the status of learning and the methods of teaching. The result is a profound commitment to rigorous rote learning with academic achievement being the only way to progress into the more highly respected careers. This has led to a generation of young people spending their whole lives at school. Although in some ways the level of commitment is admirable, it has meant that the norm for South Korean children is to spend 12 hours per day in school and at after-school hagwon (crammers), sleeping on average six or less hours per night and living in a constant cycle of assessment and testing. To fail to reach prestigious universities is considered to bring dishonour on the whole family and enormous pressure is applied by children themselves and parents to work endlessly. And in Confucian philosophy, which is in the DNA of the culture, the honour reflected by a child’s success on their  family and community is a major concern.

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14.09.30 Sean with Minister - cropped

South Korean Minister of Education and Youth, Seo Nam-soo, with Sean Bellamy of Sands School

The result has been a huge increase in youth stress-related illness, depression, suicide and the recent appearance of self-harming as a cultural phenomenon. School refusal has reached record levels and internet addiction has exploded as children hide from failure at school and immerse themselves in fantasy worlds where success is assured and creativity, imagination and play are possible; exactly what is not offered in South Korean schools.

We were asked to send a delegate because a recent change in Government, after the Korean boat tragedy, led to new legislation that has put the health of youth at the top of the political agenda. The Ministry of Education and Youth were given the task of sourcing existing alternative models of education that have been proved to combine good academic performance with excellent welfare and personal development. Sands was chosen because it already has a high profile in the huge International Democratic Schools network and its students and alumni have shown that children educated in democratic and creative environments have high levels of emotional literacy and are well equipped for the world beyond school.  Pupils’ welfare and personal development are judged to be ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

Korean educators and employers have recognised that many young people entering the job market can neither think for themselves or show  initiative; skills required for a 21st century economy. And although South Korea is an industrial giant, they are now seeing that society has suffered in the race for development and that emotional well-being seems to have been sacrificed in the intense competition for social and economic standing.

Ironically, when addressing a conference about bringing in new ideas the one of the obstacles I found was the deeply entrenched ‘learner’ role adopted by the delegates. The 400 strong audience sat in respectful silence for four days writing down the speakers’ talks word-for-word. There was virtually no discussion during the presentations and scarcely any questions from the delegates. The few questions there were felt very uncomfortable, as if they were a breach of the accepted conference protocols. However, there was no sense that the presentation of the Sands’ and other alternative models of education fell on deaf ears. In the informal spaces, where delegates felt it more appropriate to voice their thoughts, there was genuine interest and a commitment to starting an on-going dialogue with Sands. Amongst the junior Ministry staff, who spent the most time with the international delegates, there was a real sense after four days of their eyes being opened to a radically different way of thinking about education and young people. These same people were the ‘winners’ under the current system where only the very top graduates, all with higher degrees, have the chance to compete for the ultimate of prestige jobs: working at a government ministry.

Since the 1980s the U.K has been drawn towards emulating Asian models of education, associating Asian economic success with its competitive and pressurised school system. The accompanying language of industry makes schools sound (and feel) more and more like factories; teachers motivated by exam result productivity and children on an educational conveyor-belt, batch numbered, bar coded and quality assured. South Korea is now witnessing the impact of fully achieving this dehumanisation of education and is starting to look to European democratic and human scale models, like Sands School, for a solution that can deliver academically competent students who are also skilled communicators, creative and flexible and above all happy.

Sean Bellamy