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Why are South Koreans so much smarter than us?

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Why are South Koreans so much smarter than us? This sounds like it’s the build-up to a punchline but the answer is; It’s because they go to school for 16 bloody hours a day.

A common problem in the U.K is: ‘‘Oh how do we get the bloody kids off the streets? There’s only so many piano lessons we can send him to, how can we entertain them in the evenings? There’s just not enough for kids to do these days! Where are the Milk Bars of old we wore our pedal pushers and hush puppies to? They were great. Such a sense of community. That’s where your Dad and I first started going steady.

That was once a common question South Koreans asked themselves too - in a slightly differently worded way. But instead of just giving up and allowing kids to spend their formative years standing outside McDonalds, they decided to do something about it. They decided they’d make them go to school for 16 hours a day.

This is why the literacy rate is so high; 99.9%. Which begs the question; Who the bloody hell are these morons in the .1% who go to school for 16 hours a day and can’t even bloody read?

They call South Korea the place where students, not babies, are born. Education in South Korea is an overwhelmingly serious matter. This is the place where teachers can become celebrities and suicide is the number one killer of the under 40s.

So you know how when we went to school, it was from about 8am-3.30pm, right? Although now saying that, it seems like quite a lot after going to University for six hours a week.

Anyway, it’s worse in South Korea. Students get to school at about 8, finish at 4, then go off to another school at 5, and stay there until about 11. That other school is cram school. Or a Hagwon. Which roughly translates to ‘Bloody torture’. Nah it just means extra school. Some even go on the weekends! Back when I was at school, you had to either really mess up, or be an idiot, to have to go to school on the weekends. Cram school ends up setting a family back on average about £1,000 a month per child and a couple of years ago, the (Korean) government had to pass a law that prohibited students from staying at them past midnight.

A popular proverb amongst Korean students is ‘You sleep four hours a night, you get into a good school, you sleep five, you fail’. No word on if they know about Margaret Thatcher and how sleeping four hours a night worked out for her.

A popular proverb amongst British students is ‘What does ‘proverb’ mean?’

They say that behind every dedicated student is a pushy mother. In Korea, they prefer those particular mothers being called ‘educational agents’. They’re known for micro-managing every hour of their child’s day to make sure they spend as much time studying as possible. That isn’t where they stopped getting involved, either. Apparently 27% of Korean teachers have admitted accepting some sort of bribe to give certain students preferential treatment. And this is the only country in the world where teachers are paid more than doctors so those must be some bloody good bribes.

A lot of this tends to happen on May 15th: ‘National Teacher Appreciation Day’. Apparently the gifts as of late have escalated from the traditional ‘box of chocolates’ to stacks of cold, hard Korean quiche (cash).

All of this pressure and bribery is building up to just one day: The day Korean students take their version of the SATs. The exam itself lasts for 10 hours (!) and is called the CSAT (Crazy Stupid Awful Time) or (College Scholastic Ability Test) and the point is, you have to get good enough results to get into a SKY university (Korean version of Ivy League). The country stops to make way for the day of this exam. Parents go to church especially to pray that their kids will get good results, businesses are instructed to open at different hours so the traffic isn’t too bad, the U.S army (who apparently still feel the need to do a lot of this around South Korea) ceases all live-fire for the day and all motorists are advised to not honk their horns near schools. Also, builders are advised to drop the volume of their heckles from ‘aggressive’ to ‘conversational’.


It’s not a huge shock that recently the BBC got a group of six Korean 15-16 year olds to take the Maths GCSE. They all finished it in half the expected time, four got 100% and the other two got one question wrong each. This is a country that’s literacy rate was less than 50% two generations ago.

So what’s the solution? How can British children get a bit smarter? It’s all well and good being an adult and being like ‘Kids should go to school for 14 hours a day!’ But maybe a couple of extra hours wouldn’t hurt.

(U.S) President Barack Obama has praised the rigorous system, saying that the rest of the world are falling behind South Korea. He particularly went on about the length of the Western school day: ‘We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. Our children spend a whole month less in school per year’.

The reason Koreans value education so much more than us is, I think, a deeply-rooted thing. This is a country of near enough zero natural resources, so what they have to rely on is their human resources. Exporting Hyundais and Samsungs and Glenn from The Walking Dead - they’re world leaders in all of that. The state of the country and it’s future is completely entwined with educating the children. Maybe in the U.K, our government just aren’t as bothered. Maybe they think ‘It’s not like the country is going to fail if one in five of us are near enough illiterate’.

Everyone from the poorest farmer to the aristocracy value education above all other in South Korea. Half of our government met in the Bullingdon Club and everyone knows that. The future of our country is in the hands of a select few, but in South Korea, everyone has a hand in it.


Daniel is travelling in South Korea with ESL - Language Travel. 

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