Gov't tries damage control on early school entry idea
The government is finally consulting education superintendents and parents on a plan to lower the school entrance age from six years old to five — and getting an earful.
Education Minister Park Soon-ae held a videoconference with superintendents of 17 city and provincial government education offices at the Sejong government complex Wednesday morning to talk about the plan, after initially sidelining them.
The virtual meeting was supposed to focus on Covid-19 social distancing measures and school operations for the fall semester. At the last minute, the age issue was added to the agenda.
Park explained her academic reform plan to "promote the safe growth of children" and "reduce the burden on parents."
In the meeting, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon stressed the "importance of communication," adding that policies announced without consulting local education offices "only bring about confusion."
"Students ultimately suffer the damage" from such confusion, he said. "The Education Ministry should be well aware of this."
On Tuesday, Cho criticized the ministry for sidelining the city and provincial education offices and treating them "as scarecrows in an important national education policy announcement."
Last Friday, the Education Ministry disclosed that the government would begin discussions on lowering the entry age for elementary school, which could go into effect as early as 2025, in a report to President Yoon Suk-yeol.
However, the plan immediately provoked a backlash from teachers, parents and civic groups.
Some felt blindsided because Yoon's campaign pledges on educational reform didn't mention lowering the age for kids starting school.
Some parents worried that the lowering of the entry age could increase competition and lead to an even earlier reliance on private academies or cram schools.
After the public outcry, Yoon on Tuesday ordered the Education Ministry to start public debates on the issue, according to his presidential office.
Ahn Sang-hoon, senior presidential secretary for social affairs, told reporters that Yoon said, "No matter how good the reforms or policies are, they should not go against the will of the people."
Yoon also instructed the Education Ministry to hold discussions about the plan in the National Assembly, as it would later be subject to parliamentary approval, Ahn added.
"Even necessary reforms require public debate and deliberation due to conflicts of interest among stakeholders," he quoted the president as saying, calling on the ministry to "find out what the people want."
Meeting with parents' groups on Tuesday, Park said, "If the people really don't want this policy, it can be can be scrapped."
Some parents vented their anger during the meeting.
Jang Ji-hyun, co-chair of civic group No Worry About Private Education, tearfully said, "If the education is not appropriate for their developmental stage, the children will have to shoulder the damage."
When the minister tried to console her, Jang brushed off her hand and said, "I'm not looking for consolation."
On Wednesday, Vice Education Minister Jang Sang-yoon held a meeting with parents of kindergarteners at the government complex in central Seoul.
"We will accept the decision to withdraw the policy if there is revealed to be more harm than good in the process of gathering opinions," Jang told them.
“We are sorry for causing concerns, which was not our original intention.”
The Education Ministry plans to form a task force for school reform, which may be formed as early as this week and will oversee the public discussions on the entrance age issue.
An online petition calling for the abolishment of the plan gained 200,000 signatories in a matter of days as of Wednesday.
Civic groups continued protests against lowering the school entry age in front of the Yongsan presidential office in central Seoul Wednesday.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]