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Backlash against lowering elementary school entry age intensifies

Members of civic groups hold signs that read “No school system reform” and chant during a rally against the government’s plan to lower the elementary school entrance age to 5, in front of the War Memorial in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Monday afternoon. (Yonhap)
Members of civic groups hold signs that read “No school system reform” and chant during a rally against the government’s plan to lower the elementary school entrance age to 5, in front of the War Memorial in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Monday afternoon. (Yonhap)
Opposition from the education community and parents against the Ministry of Education’s elementary school entry age reorganization plan is intensifying.

On Friday, at the meeting with President Yoon Suk-yeol, Education Minister Park Soon-ae reported the plan to gradually lower the enrollment age at elementary schools to 5 years old starting as early as 2025. The plan was never mentioned in Yoon’s campaign pledges or in state affairs announced at the presidential transition committee stage.

Educators and parents have criticized the abrupt announcement, calling it an “amateur way to handle the administration.”

Around 40 civic groups representing kindergartens, school teachers and parents launched a united association, held a rally in front of the presidential office in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul, to demand the withdrawal of the plan on Monday. Rally organizers anticipated that 450 people would attend the event, but more people than expected showed up despite the intense heat, according to police. “Early entry in school at the age of 5 is inappropriate considering the children’s cognitive and emotional development stage,” an official from the association said.

The group also said that economic needs were being prioritized over the well-being of children. “It is not an educational decision to have a 5-year-old child to sit and study just to provide more manpower 20 years later. It is a policy without any concerns about a child’s happiness, right to play, right to learn and the right to grow,” the official said at the rally.

Rally organizers said that the protest will continue until the Education Ministry withdraws the reform plan.

The group began gathering signatures online on Saturday, and it had drawn 105,290 participants as of Monday morning. Various mother-exclusive online communities are also encouraging members to sign the petition.

Two major teachers’ unions -- Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations and the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union -- also voiced objection over the weekend. The Gyeonggi branch of the KTU issued a statement in opposition Monday, claiming that it is state-run child abuse to make a 5-year-old sit at a school desk for 40 minutes straight.

Minister Park appeared on a radio show Monday morning to respond to some of the concerns raised by educators and parents.

She firmly denied that lowering the admission age was a policy to resolve low birth rates and so that people could enter the workforce earlier. ”It is only to ensure fair opportunities for children from the start,” she said.

She underlined that kindergarten and elementary school systems vary depending on the country and that 5-7 years old is a transition period with children of differing levels of proficiency.

“We are considering alternatives such as flexible class hours for the smooth introduction of classes for 5-year-olds. There are plans to guarantee care service until 8 p.m. for the first and second graders of elementary school,” she added.

Park Da-som, chairman of the National and Public Kindergarten Teachers’ Union, who also appeared on the radio Monday morning, hit back at the minister’s explanation. “How can early school entrance be a bridge to resolving the educational gap?”

“If that is really the purpose of this absurd plan, it would be better to make the early childhood education system mandatory,” Park added.

By Lee Jung-Youn (jy@heraldcorp.com)
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