Sending 5-year-olds to school isn’t a very popular idea

Civic groups opposing the government’s plan to lower the elementary school entry age protest in front of the presidential office in Yongsan District, central Seoul, Monday. [NEWS1]
Civic groups opposing the government’s plan to lower the elementary school entry age protest in front of the presidential office in Yongsan District, central Seoul, Monday. [NEWS1]

Teachers, parents, and civic groups are warning the government they’re not keen on lowering the school entrance age from six years old to five.  

A group of 36 education-related civic groups held a protest near the Yongsan presidential office in central Seoul on Monday.  

Last Friday, Education Minister Park Soon-ae reported to President Yoon Suk-yeol that her ministry will soon begin discussions on lowering the school entry age, which could go into effect as early as 2025.  

Yoon told Park, who doubles as deputy prime minister, to quickly come up with measures to lower the school entry age while “maintaining the 12-year school system.” 

The plan is unpopular with parents’ groups and teachers’ unions on both sides of the political aisle, conservative and progressive.  

Yoon’s campaign pledges on educational reform did not include lowering the school entry age. He promised to focus on enhancing early childhood education.  

The Ministry of Education will canvas public opinion before actually lowering the school entry age, but it already is receiving flak.  

The Korean education system is comprised of six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, and three in high school.  

This would be the first time in 76 years that the entry age for an elementary school would be lowered.  

Under the plan, there is expected to be a phase-in period, with five- and six-year-olds entering school simultaneously during a transition process of four years.  

The conservative Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association and progressive Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union came together to criticize the Education Ministry over the weekend.  

On Monday, a group of 36 protesting civic groups including the Korean Society for Early Children Education accused the Education Ministry for introducing “inappropriate policies” without prior consultation or research. They also have an online petition calling for the withdrawal of the plan.  

Separately on Monday, the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations and the Korean Association of Public Kindergarten Teachers delivered a letter expressing their opposition to the presidential office.  

“Early admission is possible through individual choice,” their statement read, “but the preference is so low that only 537 students nationwide chose early admission in 2021.”  

It said the size and set-up of a classroom, meals, and toilets for three- to five-year-olds are different from a regular elementary school classroom.  

The ministry argues that the plan will reduce education expenses for families and strengthen public education responsibilities. It says it would enable the government to cover more child care and provide an opportunity for students to graduate earlier and get a head start in finding jobs, especially as Korean society suffers from a low birth rate and an aging population.  

Some child education experts point out that five-year-olds need to be able to play, run and focus on cognitive development rather than sit in a rigid elementary school classroom setting.  

The elementary school also offers less child-care support for working parents. Others worry younger school entry could just lead to more private academy classes for students.   

Previous administrations, both liberal and conservative, have proposed lowering the school entrance age but the plan never gained much traction.  

Education Minister Park addressed the concerns in a press conference in Yeouido, western Seoul, Monday afternoon and promised to get a social consensus through a public survey.  

“The purpose is to guarantee safe, high-quality education from the starting point by incorporating these children into public education at an early stage,” said Park. 

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo instructed Park to “listen to diverse opinions of parents and other education insiders and reflect them faithfully in related policies so that the public does not become worried.”

He added, “It is important to keep in mind that each child has a different developmental level, and each family and school have different circumstances,” according to his office in a statement.  

Education Minister Park Soon-ae holds a press conference on the government’s plans to lower the school entry age by one year in front of the Korea Institute of Educational Facility Safety in Yeouido, western Seoul, Monday. [NEWS1]
Education Minister Park Soon-ae holds a press conference on the government’s plans to lower the school entry age by one year in front of the Korea Institute of Educational Facility Safety in Yeouido, western Seoul, Monday. [NEWS1]

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]