When a mother surnamed Koo sent her 10-year-old son to Thailand two summers ago, she was hopeful about giving him a better chance to learn English at an international school.
"Instead of having a professional agency find the school and take care of accommodation, I arranged for my son to stay with my very close friend so he can have Korean meals," Koo said.
"The international school was expensive, but I thought I was providing the best support I can for his education."
But Koo was not so sure after she visited her son about seven months into his new life.
"He seemed distant and not quite the way he was before. He was still struggling to adjust to the new environment and I got worried," she said.
Koo decided to end her son`s overseas schooling after a year. The sixth-grader returned home and is now back to taking private lessons after school to catch up with his peers.
Sending children abroad for educational reasons had been a popular option for tens of thousands of parents fed up with the ceaseless, not to mention costly, daily rounds to private education institutes, or hagwon.
The annual number of precollegiate students sent abroad increased each year from 1,562 in 1998 to 10,132 in 2002 and 29,511 in 2006.
But the trend began to fade as the economic downturn took hold among middle-income families. Many also started having second thoughts on the benefits of international education.
The number of outbound students dropped for the first time ever in 2007 and again last year.
Some 27,349 students left local elementary, middle and high schools between March 1, 2008 and Feb. 28 this year to attend overseas schools, down from 27,668 a year ago, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
The figures do not include the thousands of students who moved abroad with their families.
"We would have to analyze the reasons for the decline, but we suspect maybe this means the parents` views are slowly changing on studying abroad at an early age," an official at the Education Ministry said.
The United States (32.1 percent) was still the most favored destination for students sent abroad last year, followed by Southeast Asia (19.5 percent), China (13.2 percent), Canada (12.6 percent), Australia (5 percent) and New Zealand (4 percent).
Only Southeast Asia saw growth in the number of students from Korea, from 552 the previous year, presumably thanks to its relatively inexpensive cost of living and proximity to Korea.
Private institutes and agencies that provide counseling on overseas education recommend sending children abroad for no more than a year after finishing third grade, if they plan to go to college in Korea.
They say that if kids return home after two or more years abroad, they have a hard time readjusting to the stressful educational practices here and catching up with subjects other than English.
"If anyone asks me for advice, I`d say overseas schooling is recommendable only for well-prepared students who have no problem reading English," Koo said.
"Otherwise, kids are bound to return home before getting a hang of the language."
By Kim So-hyun