‘Free semester’ prudence, please

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‘Free semester’ prudence, please

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology proposed to President-elect Park Geun-hye’s transition committee to introduce an exploratory “free semester” during the first year at middle school. According to the plan, middle school freshmen would be exempt from a number of exams aimed at checking academic performance and instead be encouraged to explore their aptitudes and talents.

The freedom from stressful tests would carry a particularly refreshing message to many students and parents whose prime focus and goal for the 12 years from elementary through high school is getting into a top university. It couldn’t be better if students can have time to consider their future and explore various fields. Some European countries, too, have been running a vocational exploration course for middle school students.

But the problem is that however good the intentions, the experiment may not work in our school environment. Parents, in particular, become very sensitive about their children’s grades as soon as they move up to middle school as competition and tutoring gets serious in preparation for admission to elite high schools, including foreign language schools and other special purpose schools, free-curriculum schools and other private schools.

Under such circumstances, the exploratory term won’t likely ease parents’ burden. Instead, it could exacerbate the competition or the cost for private education because parents could use the extra no-school period to have their children take a battery of courses in private institutions to raise their chances of getting into better high schools and universities. The free term, in fact, could bring a windfall of profits to the private education industry.

Although many companies are developing various vocational programs for students, they won’t be ready to meet the flood of more than 400,000 students starting middle school next year. It also remains doubtful if different schools really have the ability to arrange quality courses - vocational or exploratory - equally for their students. If schools turn negligent, students could end up wasting their precious time outside the classroom.

Every government launched new education policies with good intentions. But many fell apart or caused confusion. The free school term need not be rushed. The education, science and technology ministry and the transition team must thoroughly study the feasibility of the policy. If they still agree it is needed, they should take necessary steps to ensure its success before it’s too late.

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