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'Pandemic kids': Plan to lower school entry age backfires

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First grade students at an elementary school in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, attend class on their first day of school, March 2. Newsis
First grade students at an elementary school in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, attend class on their first day of school, March 2. Newsis

Five-year-olds' brain development requires play: experts

By Lee Hyo-jin

First grade in elementary school is widely considered a milestone year for children, when their academic learning begins in earnest, leaving behind the play-based activities of kindergarten. They also begin to create their individual identities outside of the home and acquire social skills through daily interactions with peers.

The debate about the ideal age to start school is not new, with educators, child development experts, parents and policymakers offering differing views. Some believe the older the better, while some suggest that it is better to give children an educational experience from early on.

Currently, children in Korea are enrolled in elementary school on March 1 following the year in which they have turned six in international age, under the Education Act established in 1949.

But the country may see a change in this 73-year-old practice in the coming years, as the current administration is seeking to have children start formal education earlier.

The Ministry of Education announced on July 29 that it plans to lower the school-entry age to five from as early as 2025 and thereby allow children to start public education a year earlier, with the premise of reducing the burden of education expenses on parents. The ministry also believes that bringing children into the public school system earlier would help address inequalities in education.

Importantly, the ministry views that lowering the school admission age would help tackle the major labor shortage the country is facing amid a rapidly declining birthrate and aging population, as it would allow children to begin their working careers earlier after college graduation.

However, child development experts are critical of the plan for a number of reasons.

In particular, some believe that the move may do more harm than good, considering the developmental stage of five-year-old children in today's COVID-19 era.

'Pandemic children'

A first grade student at an elementary school in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, looks at COVID-19 self-test kit distributed to students on their first day of school, March 2. Newsis
A first grade student at an elementary school in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, looks at COVID-19 self-test kit distributed to students on their first day of school, March 2. Newsis

One important aspect the government seems to be overlooking is possible developmental delays among children who were born and raised during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Lee Wan-jeong, head of the Korean Association of Child Studies.

"The pandemic has had a significant impact on children's development. There are concerns that facemasks are slowing their language and social development, which usually takes place during the early stages of childhood," Lee told The Korea Times.

She explained that a key part of learning to communicate for a child is watching the faces and mouths of adults, but they are not able to do so with the bottom halves of faces covered up outside of the home.

Lee said that admitting five-year-olds to school from 2025 seems "too harsh for the children."

The pandemic continues with no clear end in sight, and educators are still discovering whether the prolonged health crisis will have lasting effects on child development, she said.

"Education policies for each age cohort should be designed with a tailored approach, based on understanding the characteristics of each age group," she said. "In that sense, it is highly regrettable that the government is trying to test out the new policy on today's COVID-19 generation of children. I do not understand why discussions on lowering the school entry age were brought up at this point of time."

First grade students head to class on the first day of school at an elementary school in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, March 2. Newsis
First grade students head to class on the first day of school at an elementary school in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, March 2. Newsis
Sohn Hye-sook, a professor of early childhood education at Kyungin Women's University, also shared disapproving views about the government's planned policy.

"The first critical period of brain development begins at around age 2 and concludes at around 7. This period is considered a prime opportunity to lay the foundation for holistic education," she said.

"And during this period, a child should be able to engage in playful activities, rather than sitting in teacher-led classes. Neuroscientific studies show that playful activity leads to synaptic growth in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which plays a crucial role in creative thinking," she said, explaining that five is not the optimal age to receive formal education under the current curriculum.

Sohn went on to say that the average duration of a five-year-old child's attention span is from six to 15 minutes, well short of school classes, which last 40 minutes per period. "The children won't be able to stay focused during classes. It will be stressful both for the students and teachers," she said.

Meanwhile, some experts believe lowering the age for entering school could be a viable scenario to be implemented in the long term, but that it should be reviewed thoroughly first.

"Children nowadays seem to reach intellectual development milestones faster than in the past. They tend to grow up faster," said Sohn Gi-chang, a professor of education at Sookmyung Women's University.

But Song didn't entirely oppose nor support the policy, because the government is yet to give further details on how it intends to realize its plans.

"It's a very complicated issue to comment on. Not only because of strong opposition from parents and teachers, but also because the authorities did not give explanations on how it will revise the school curriculum, increase the number of teachers and prepare the resources needed for the additional influx of students," he said.

Fierce backlash from parents, teachers

A coalition of parents, teachers and civic groups hold a rally in front of the presidential office in Yongsan District, Seoul, calling on the government to withdraw its plan to lower the school entry age, Aug.3. Yonhap
A coalition of parents, teachers and civic groups hold a rally in front of the presidential office in Yongsan District, Seoul, calling on the government to withdraw its plan to lower the school entry age, Aug.3. Yonhap

The proposal has received strong backlash from educators, parents and civic groups. A large-scale rally was held in front of the presidential office calling for the government to withdraw its plans, Aug. 1. The protest included unions of school teachers, preschool teachers, parents groups as well as members of civic groups.

Teachers were irked by the ministry's unilateral announcement, while parents expressed worries that their children may not be ready to cope in school, as well as over the lack of after-school day care programs.

"It was out of the blue. I was very annoyed by the government's abrupt announcement without any discussions with the teachers who are closely involved in the matter," a 30-year-old elementary school teacher in Gyeonggi Province who wished to stay anonymous told The Korea Times.

"It's absurd for the government to think that sending children to school earlier will alleviate the burden of private education fees on parents, given that schools end earlier than kindergartens. It will only come as a bigger burden for households where both parents work," said Choi, the mother of two children each born in 2016 and 2020, living in Nowon District of Seoul.

Will gov't force through the policy?

Education Minister Park Soon-ae, right, tries to shake hands with a representative of a parents' group after a meeting at Government Complex Seoul, held to gather public opinion about the ministry's plan to lower the school entry age, Aug. 2. Yonhap
Education Minister Park Soon-ae, right, tries to shake hands with a representative of a parents' group after a meeting at Government Complex Seoul, held to gather public opinion about the ministry's plan to lower the school entry age, Aug. 2. Yonhap

The education ministry is facing a bumpy road, with opposition from parents, teachers and even regional education offices mounting, despite backtracking somewhat by engaging in discussions now, after already having announced the policy.

President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered Education Minister Park Soon-ae to "engage in public discussions," three days after he had previously ordered her to start working on the policy as soon as possible on July 29.

Park held a meeting with members of parents groups, Aug. 2, under the premise of gathering public opinion. But the parents ― already frustrated so much that they gave the cold shoulder to Park during the meeting ― later criticized the ministry, saying it had organized the event "just for show," rather than to listen to their voices in earnest.

In response to the resounding complaints of parents, during the meeting, Park said her ministry "may consider withdrawing a policy that fails to gather public support."


Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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