The Rising Demand for English Language Education in Modern Korea
As a graduate of an English-language high school in Korea, I thought I knew a lot about the English-language educational options in my country. Boy, was I wrong! My nationality is Korean, but as a young child I grew up in the United States, attending most of my elementary education there. Then I moved to Hong Kong, where I attended Hong Kong International School, which offers an American-style education with a Christian foundation. I returned home to South Korea and attended Yongsan International School of Seoul (YISS), one of the well-known international schools in Seoul for three years of High School, finally graduating in 2015.
My story is less and less uncommon. With Korea’s growing position in the world economy and increased exchange with foreign countries since the 80s, many Korean families have spent extended time abroad, with their children primarily being educated in English. For families like mine, domestic international schools provide a way for parents to deliver consistent education in a single language despite periodically moving abroad. After all, there aren’t many Korean language schools outside of the peninsula.
At the same time even for Koreans living their entire lives here, English ability is highly prized in the domestic job market, which increases the demand for English-language education. In fact, this demand has led to the unique phenomenon known as gireogi appa (기러기 아빠) – literally “goose father.” This expression is a little over a decade old and refers to the fact that wild geese migrate great distances. The expression describes single-household husbands working in Korea while their wives and children reside abroad to provide their children an immersive English language educational experience.
The Four Categories of English & Foreign Language Education in Korea: Foreigner Schools, International Schools, Foreign Language Schools & Hagwons
Although International Schools and Foreigner Schools are the focus of this article, parents should be aware of all their educational options in Seoul and greater Korea. There are four very different types of institutions that provide education to young learners in foreign languages.
Keep in mind that these are the categories of schools established and recognized by the Korean government. Foreign parents should also consider recognition from institutions in their home country and abroad – foreign accreditation. This will be discussed later in the article.
Foreigner Schools in Korea (외국인학교 – literally “foreign person schools”)
Foreigner schools have been granted their charters by the Korean government to ensure that non-Korean children and Korean children who have lived extensively abroad can receive an education in their native language, be it French, Japanese, German, Chinese or English.
These schools are required to have 70% foreign students enrolled with the remaining 30% to accommodate eligible ethnic Koreans, as mandated by the Korean Ministry of Education. To be eligible for entry to foreign schools, Korean citizens must meet at least of one of the following criteria:
They must have resided overseas for over three years or
They must have spent at least six semesters or three years at an overseas school or
They must have at least one parent who is a foreign citizen.
It is important to note that under the Korean nationality law, a person with more than one nationality is deemed to be Korean if one of those nationalities is Korean. A child born overseas to parents whose parents had Korean citizenship may be deemed a dual citizen even if they have never lived in Korea in certain cases.
Foreigner schools do not offer a Korean high school diploma, so to apply for a Korean university, graduates will have to take a Korean high school equivalency exam.
International Schools in Korea (국제학교)
International schools do not have the same limitations on the ratio of Korean to foreign students that foreigner schools have. The license for an international school is normally granted because a regional Korean government seeks to provide English language education options to attract foreign residents. This is frequently the case for Korea’s many FEZ – Free Economic Zones.
You can expect a lower ratio of native English speakers at an International School in Korea and a higher percentage of native Korean speakers.
One local advantage of international schools is that their degree is often recognized in Korea as well. Students receive a Korean high school diploma if they take a certain amount of credits related to the Korean curriculum, allowing them to be eligible to apply to a Korean university in the typical fashion.
Foreign Language High Schools (외국어고등학교)
This category forms a bridge between Korean high school and Foreign or International schools – more Korean than foreign, but emphasising foreign language education. The students are nearly all Korean at these private institutions; students with a foreign nationality will be rare.
The core curriculum will be taught in Korean, but students also are required to study or “major” in one or more foreign languages. Some of them have the enthusiastic support of local governments. They often offer foreign language classes in more than just English, with many offering the opportunity to study in Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Russian and more.
English Language Academy / Institute Day Programs – Hagwon (학원)
In Korean, the word ‘hagwon’ means a private academy or institute, and they are typically for-profit organizations. Many of them teach English, and some of them have day programs that are the equivalent of elementary or secondary school programs. They are not, however, officially recognized by the Korean government as elementary or secondary educational institutions. They are legally required to state that they are designated as hagwon both on the signs at their schools and at the bottom of their websites.
As they are not legally registered elementary or secondary schools, parents may have to register with the government as having chosen the homeschooling option for their children.
This does not necessarily mean they provide a second tier quality of education however. Some English hagwons are even accredited by international accreditation institutions. The two questions parents should ask to determine whether they are getting a quality education from an English hagwon for your child are:
What percentage of your teachers have teaching credentials, either in Korea or from their home country?
Is your institution fully accredited by a foreign accreditation commission of some sort? (Confirm with the organization to be sure.)
Accreditation for Foreign Schools, International Schools & Hagwons in Korea
Once again, foreign countries may recognize degrees from each of these institutions differently. Parents should consider their young one’s eventual university educational plans when choosing schools and look for accreditation from th. For instance, there are privately operated academies (hagwons) in Korea that are not fully acknowledged primary / secondary educational institutions but are fully accredited by foreign international school accrediting institutions. International School in Korea also may not be accredited by a foreign organization. Higher education plans should certainly be considered when choosing a school.
Tuition & Fees at International Schools & Foreign Schools in Korea
The annual price range of foreign and international schools falls between KRW 20,000,000 – KRW 35,000,000 (US $17,500 – $31,000) .
Foreigner School Tuition & Fees
Many Foreigner Schools and International Schools require part of tuition in Korean won and part in US dollars — the latter ostensibly used to procure overseas textbooks and academic programs.
Keep in mind that the above prices are only for tuition, and every school has additional fees, such as application fees, “placement deposits, capital deposits, lunch, bus, uniform, and other fees that could have you spending 10% – 30% above and beyond tuition.
Additional Foreign & International School Fees
Parents should also be aware of numerous other costs they will incur. Most schools require school supplies, specific uniforms & footwear, athletic attire, sports competition & travel fees, as well as transportation and lodging for domestic and international trips for sports, charity work, senior week, etc., all of which can add up quickly. Expect to pay 10% – 30% above and beyond tuition expenses.
Scholarships to International Schools & Foreign Schools in Korea
Some schools provide scholarships, but the only one we could find advertising their scholarship options on their site was Dwight School Seoul. (If you learn about more add them in the comments!) In addition to scholarships based on academic ability, they offer scholarships for students who excel in areas like visual arts, athletics and technological capability.
Foreign parents who are paying for their own children’s attendance in particular should also inquire about scholarship opportunities at foreign schools. Thanks to the 70% foreign student requirement at these schools, there may be a demand for foreign students in order to accommodate their 30% Korean population.
Religious Schools & Christian Education in South Korea
The influence of Christian missionaries in modern Korean history is prevalent in the growth of the education system. Private schooling institutions were built by Christian missionaries who sought to establish new education as a method of growing their followers as well as educate the families of foreign residents in Korea. The primary example of this is Seoul Foreign School (SFS), is one of the largest and oldest schools founded in 1912 and affiliated with the Christian faith.
While a handful of foreign and international schools embrace a religious education, all of the international schools accept students from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds and respect the interests and diversity of the community they serve.
English Language International School Hot Spots: Seoul, Incheon, Ulsan, Geoje, Daegu, and Jeju Island
The number of English-language schools in an area is determined by three factors: foreign population, income, and government policy.
The first two of course lead you to believe that the capital of Seoul and surrounding suburbs like Incheon to be the center of foreign language education – and you’d be right.
What many people don’t realize is that the largest population of foreign residents outside of Seoul is actually in the South Eastern corner and includes the cities of Ulsan Busan and the island of Geoje. The reason for this is that shipbuilding is a massive employer in the area and brings in a huge amount of well-paid foreign consultants to oversee the building of ships. This creates a huge demand for quality English language education in the area. It also leads to a very well paid Korean professional class. In fact the city with the highest per capita income in Korea is Ulsan, with Hyundai Heavy Industries and their shipbuilding prowess largely contributing to the wealthiest city status.
The third and final big factor is government policies. Over a decade ago the Korean government set out to make Jeju Island an international hub for business and finance, modeled after Hong Kong & Singapore. Part of that effort to do so included the Jeju Free International City Development Center – or JDC. With its enigmatic mission to “Build Free International City Where Growth and Coexistence Are in Harmony to Create Values for Jeju,” the area includes 4 foreign-licensed international boarding schools and the Jeju campus of Korea International School. Nestled at the base of Jeju’s iconic Mt. Halla, these schools are surrounded by impressive educational facilities that they share, improving the quality for all.
Educational Systems: American, British, French, and German
There are roughly 45 foreign and international schools in South Korea that offer either some type of American curriculum or one based on International Baccalaureate. American curricula vary widely depending on the US state, so check the accreditation and affiliation of schools that interest you. Common core is in widespread use on the peninsula, but with disparate degrees of implementation. Many students who envision going to a US university will want a school that offers advanced placement (AP) courses that allow them to take college-level courses while in high school and often transfer such credits.
One limitation of AP is that it is only available for high school students, which differs with International Baccalaureate (IB), a program that is offered to youths aged 3 to 19. In Korea, the IB Diploma Programme is currently offered by 13 schools, most of which are taught in English, but French and Korean courses are also available. Several of the institutions with IB in Korea are affiliated with British education systems, including British International Academy, Dulwich College Seoul, and the British School at SFS. If your children parlez français, then you’re limited to two options, Lycée Francais de Séoul and Lycée International Xavier, both of which are located in the capital city.
French nationals benefit from reduced tuition and accreditation applicable to European universities. Deutsche Schule Seoul International (Seoul German School) remains the only primary school in South Korea for instruction in that language.
Sports & Athletic Programs at International & Foreign Schools in Seoul & South Korea
There are many active sports and athletic programs for students of international and foreign schools in Seoul & South Korea. Most of the schools participate in the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference (KAIAC). KAIAC serves as a kind of catch-all for both athletic and academic competitions.
At the highest level of sports & athletic competitions, there are three different divisions that compete in tennis, volleyball, basketball and soccer (football). There are also non-divisional competitions in sports like cross-country, badminton, table tennis, cheerleading, track & field, and swimming.
KAIAC also serves as the organizing institution for academic and artistic competitions in areas like music and forensics (aka speech and debate competitions).
South Korea’s School Calendar
The calendar years of international and foreign schools in South Korean differ from local ones — which have semesters running from March-July and September-February — as most start from mid-August and end sometime the following June. International and foreign schools also tend to take three weeks off for X-mas/New Year’s, a one week spring break, plus Chuseok and Sollal as well as most other Korean holidays.
Hiring for Jobs & Employment Salaries at International & Foreign Schools in South Korea
Jobs at international schools and foreign schools in Korea are typically well-paid and extremely competitive. As students pay a hefty tuition fee, both parents and students expect the teachers to be well-qualified for their positions.
A teaching credential is pretty much a necessity to obtain a job teaching most subjects at an international school or foreign school in Korea. Masters degrees are becoming sought after as well.
South Korea is also extremely institution conscious. The more prestigious the university you graduated from, the more likely you are to be hired.
The Best International Schools, Foreign Schools, and Academies (Hagwon) in South Korea
To help readers find just the right school, we compiled the following lists based on the most important characteristics that readers will likely be looking for: