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International schools becoming alternative to early study abroad

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Published : 2011-11-09 16:22
Updated : 2011-11-09 19:46

International schools in Korea are hitting the spotlight as a competitive alternative to early study abroad.

The schools have lower limits on Korean student enrollment than foreign schools in Korea, but their high fees have led to criticism that they provide an elite education that ordinary people cannot afford.

Parents are attracted by schools that offer the same international curriculum as provided overseas but do not require them to live apart from their children.

Study abroad has declined in recent years. The number of Koreans studying overseas peaked at 29,511 in 2006, and fell to 18,741 in 2010, according to the Education Ministry. Ministry officials expect the downward trend to continue for some time.

The trend may be in part related to the economic downturn: The tuition fees and living costs in advanced countries are high. But there are other factors. When children come back home, they may have difficulty adapting to local education systems.

“Sending children abroad for education these days may pose a heavy financial burden for parents and a tough transition for children when they return home,” said Kim Seung-hyun, policy director of the World Without Worries about Private Education, a Korean civic group against overheated private education.

On top of that, family separation is stressful for both parents and children.

“I wanted my little children to study abroad for a couple of years, but I couldn’t make my up mind to send them overseas, at the thought of their separation from mom and dad,” said a member of an online community of parents who sent or are considering sending their children to international schools in Korea.

Korea has four international schools. Among them are U.S.-based Chadwick International School and U.K. institution North London Collegiate School. Chadwick opened its Korean campus in Songdo, Incheon, in September 2010. North London Collegiate School followed suit this year on Jeju Island. 
Students in class at Chadwick International School. (Chadwick International School)

Some parents have high expectations for international schools because of their curriculums and educational facilities. Parents who move to Korea from abroad also appreciate them.

“I want my kid to find out and develop (their) potential ability at the international school, enjoy a nice environment and pursue the dream of becoming a global leader,” said a parent who sent her child to the international school in Jeju.

Hong Min-pyo, father of a fourth and sixth grader at Chadwick International School, appreciated the school itself, saying that his whole family could move back to Korea from Singapore.

“My family and I were able to come to Korea from Singapore where we stayed for three years due to my wife’s job. Without the school, I might have left my two children at an international school in Singapore,” he said.

“There are many parents who changed their mind and sent their children to international schools here, not abroad,” he added.

Some children pestered their parents to send them to international schools in Korea, school officials said. They were mostly attracted to international curricula and extracurricular activities.

“I like geography class at NLCS Jeju. When attending a Korean school, I studied the subject only with textbooks. Here I learn geography with nice-looking maps. Teachers explain terms and facts vividly and graphically,” said Hong Chang-ki, a tenth grader, who attended a Korean middle school in Seoul.

Two-tier system

Some lawmakers and civic activists are critical of international schools. They brand them “royal schools” for the wealthy, citing higher tuition fees compared with those of local schools.

Annual tuition for NLCS Jeju is about 27 million won ($23,000). Board expenses included, the cost reaches 40 million won.

The figure is far higher than Korean high school tuition of about 2 million won, but less than in the U.K. or U.S, said an NLCS official.

“Average tuition plus boarding expenses in the U.K. is around 65 million won to 70 million won a year. In the U.S., it is about 55 million won,” said Kris Yoon, a marketing manager for the state run body that provides administrative support for international schools on Jeju. There is also a large portion of Koreans in the student mix.

At Chadwick International School, about 83 percent of its 480 students are Korean. The school limits the maximum number of Korean students to 30 percent of its enrollment quota, 2,080.

In NLCS Jeju, Korean students account for 98 percent of total enrollment. For now, most foreign students are school faculty members’ children. The school does not place a ceiling on Korean enrollment under one of its goals, which is to improve Korean students’ English language proficiency.

“Due to the large portion of Korean students, they will have difficulty getting a truly ‘global’ experience. In a word, what they experience is a limited internationalization,” said Eur Do-seon, English language education professor of Korea University.

Another expert expressed concern about the issue.

“International school students live in a league of their own, cut off from the Korean education system. They are surrounded by friends with similar backgrounds. They miss a chance to learn to mingle with people with diverse backgrounds,” said Kim of World Without Worries about Private Education.

“True global leaders should be equipped with communication skills, not language skills.”

Some parents worry about whether their children can catch up with graduates from Korean schools when competing for university admission in Korea.

“It is understandable that the school follows its main campus curriculum, but one of my wishes is that my children will be able to compete academically with Korean school students,” said Hong.

Global education

But accusations of a two-tier system may be moot if the alternative is for children to go overseas.

“Before international schools were opened, parents took the role of producing globally educated people by sending children abroad to study. Now, international schools here can fill in for them,” Eur said.

He also pointed out that international schools and the government should come up with measures to prevent them becoming “royal schools,” such as scholarship expansion.

“If international school graduates receive special treatment in Korean college admission, they will face public censure,” said professor Eur.

“International schools are important in that they play an important role in developing the global mind of Korean students. We need to look at them in terms of the big picture and the long term,” Eur noted.

By Lee Woo-young  (wylee@heraldcorp.com)

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