Secondary Education

In 1987, there were approximately 4,895,354 students enrolled in middle schools and high schools, with approximately 150,873 teachers. About 69 percent of these teachers were male. About 98% of Korean students finish secondary education. The secondary-school enrollment figure also reflected changing population trends—there were 3,959,975 students in secondary schools in 1979. Given the importance of entry into higher education, the majority of students attended general or academic high schools in 1987: 1,397,359 students, or 60 percent of the total, attended general or academic high schools, as compared with 840,265 students in vocational secondary schools. Vocational schools specialized in a number of fields: primarily agriculture, fishery, commerce, trades, merchant marine, engineering, and the arts.

Competitive entrance examinations at the middle-school level were abolished in 1968. Although as of the late 1980s, students still had to pass noncompetitive qualifying examinations, they were assigned to secondary institutions by lottery, or else by location within the boundary of the school district. Secondary schools, formerly ranked according to the quality of their students, have been equalized, with a portion of good, mediocre, and poor students being assigned to each one. The reform, however, did not equalize secondary schools completely. In Seoul, students who performed well in qualifying examinations were allowed to attend better quality schools in a "common" district, while other students attended schools in one of five geographical districts. The reforms applied equally to public and private schools whose enrollments were strictly controlled by the Ministry of Education.
In South Korea, the grade of a student is reset as the student progresses through elementary, middle and high school. To differentiate the grades between students, one would often state the grade based on the level of education he/she is in. For example, a student in a first year of middle school would be referred to as "First grade in Middle School (중학교 1학년)".

Middle schools are called Jung hakgyo (중학교) in Korean, which literally means middle school. High schools are called Godeung hakgyo (고등학교) in Korean, literally meaning "high school".

Middle school
Middle schools in South Korea consist of three grades. Most students enter at age 12 or 13 and graduate at age 15 or 16 (western years). These three grades correspond roughly to grades 7-9 in the North American system and Years 8-10 in England and Wales's system.

Middle school in South Korea marks a considerable shift from primary school, with students expected to take studies and school much more seriously. At most middle schools regulation uniforms and haircuts are enforced fairly strictly, and some aspects of students' lives are highly controlled. Like in primary school, students spend most of the day in the same homeroom classroom with the same classmates; however, students have different teachers for each subject. Teachers move around from classroom to classroom, and few teachers apart from those who teach special subjects have their own rooms to which students come. Homeroom teachers (담임교사, RR: damim gyosa) play a very important role in students' lives.

Most middle school students take seven lessons a day, and in addition to this usually have an early morning block that precedes regular lessons and an eighth lesson specializing in an extra subject to finish the day. Unlike with high school, middle school curricula do not vary much from school to school. Korean, Algebra, Geometry, English, social studies, and science form the core subjects, with students also receiving instruction in music, art, PE, korean history, ethics, home economics, technology, and Hanja. What subjects students study and in what amount may vary from year to year. All regular lessons are 45 minutes long. Before school, students have an extra block, 30-or-more minutes long, that may be used for self-study, watching Educational Broadcast System (EBS) broadcasts, or for personal or class administration. Beginning in 2008, students attended school from Monday to Friday, and had a half-day every 1st, 3rd, and 5th (calendar permitting) Saturday of the month. Saturday lessons usually included Club Activity (CA) lessons, where students could participate in extracurricular activities. However these classes were also not used well either. Many schools have regular classes except having extracurricular activities because schools and parents want students to study more. However, from 2012 onwards, primary and secondary schools, including middle schools, will no longer hold Saturday classes. However, still many schools have Saturday classes illegally because the parents want their children go to school and study.

In 1969, the government abolished entrance examinations for middle school students, replacing it with a system whereby primary school students within the same district are selected for middle schools by a lottery system. This has the effect of equalizing the quality of students from school to school, though schools in areas where students come from more privileged backgrounds still tend to outperform schools in poorer areas. Until recently most middle schools have been same-sex, though in the past decade most new middle schools have been mixed, and some previously same-sex schools have converted to mixed as well. Some schools have converted to same-sex due to pressure from parents who thought that their children would study better in single-sex education.

As with primary schools, students pass from grade to grade regardless of knowledge or academic achievement, the result being that classes often have students of vastly differing abilities learning the same subject material together. In the final year of middle school examination scores become very important for the top students hoping to gain entrance into the top high schools, and for those in the middle hoping to get into an academic rather than a technical or vocational high school. Otherwise, examinations and marks only matter insofar as living up to a self-enforced concept of position in the school ranking system. There are some standardized examinations for certain subjects, and teachers of academic subjects are expected to follow approved textbooks, but generally middle school teachers have more flexibility over curricula and methods than teachers at high school.

More than 95% of the middle school students also attend independent owned, after-school tutoring agencies known as hagwon, and many receive extra instruction from private tutors. The core subjects, especially the cumulative subjects of Korean, English and math, receive the most emphasis. Some hagwon specializing in just one subject, and others offer all core subjects, constituting a second round of schooling every day for their pupils. Indeed, some parents place more stress on their children's hagwon studies than their public school studies. Additionally, many students attend academies for things such as martial arts or music. The result of all this is that many middle school students, like their high school counterparts, return from a day of schooling well after sunset. The average South Korean family spends 20% percent of its income on after-hours cram schools, more spending per capita on private tutoring than any other country.

High school
High schools in South Korea teach students for three years, from first grade (age 15-17) to third grade (age 17-19), and students commonly graduate at age 18 or 19. High school students are commonly expected to study increasingly long hours each year moving toward graduation, to become competitive and be able to enter attractive universities, such as the top SKY (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities). Many high school students wake and leave home in the morning at 5 a.m. and return home after studying well after 10 p.m., then return to specialty study schools often to 2 a.m., from Monday to Friday and also they often study on weekends.

It is a commonly known saying in Korea that 'If you sleep three hours a night, you may get into a top 'SKY university;' If you sleep four hours each night, you may get into another university; if you sleep five or more hours each night, especially in your last year of high school, forget about getting into any university.' Accordingly, many high school students in their final year do not have any free time for holidays, birthdays or vacations before the CATs (National College Scholastic Aptitude Test, Korean:수능), which are university entrance exams held by the Ministry of Education. Surprisingly, some high school students are offered chances to travel with family to enjoy fun and relaxing vacations, but these offers are often refused on the first suggestion by the students themselves, and increasingly on later additional trips if any, due to peer influences and a fear of 'falling behind' in classes. Many high school students seem to prefer staying with friends and studying, rather than taking a break. The idea of 'skipping classes' for fun is extremely rare in Korea. Rebellious students will often stay in class and use smart phones connected to the internet to chat with friends behind the teacher's back during classes.

High schools in Korea can be divided into specialty tracks that accord with a student's interest and career path. For example, there are science (Science high school), foreign language and art specialty high schools to which students can attend by passing entrance examinations which are generally highly competitive. Other types of high schools include public high schools and private high schools, both with or without entrance examinations. These high schools do not report to specialise in a field, but are more focused on sending their students to college. For students who do not wish a college education, vocational schools specialising in fields such as technology, agriculture or finance are available, such that students are employable right after graduation. Around 20% of high school students are in vocational high schools.

On noting the schedule of many high school students, it is not unusual for them to arrive home from school at midnight or even as late as 3am after intensive "self-study" sessions supported by the school or parents. The Korean government has tried to crack down on such serious study habits in order to allow a more balanced system, and fined many privately run specialty study institutes ('hagwons') for running classes as late (or as early) as 2am. Some such institutes ('hagwons') also offer early morning classes for students to attend before going to school in the morning.

The normal government school curriculum is often noted as rigorous, with as many as 16 or so subjects. Most students choose to also attend privately run profit-making institutes known as hagwon (學院, Korean: 학원) to boost their academic performance. Core subjects include Korean, English and mathematics, with adequate emphasis on social and physical science subjects. Students do not typically ask questions in the classroom, but prefer to memorise details. It is critical to note that the type and level of subjects may differ from school to school, depending on the degree of selectivity and specialisation of the school. Specialty, optional, expensive, study schools help students memorise questions and answers from previous years' CAT tests (since August 1993) and universities' interview questions.

High school is not mandatory, unlike middle school education in Korea. However, according to a 2005 study of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, some 97% of South Korea's young adults do complete high school. This was the highest percentage recorded in any country. However, this is mainly due to the fact that there is no such thing as a failing grade in Korea, and most graduate as long as they attend school a certain number of days.

As it stands, the Korean secondary system of education is highly successful in preparing students for teacher-centered education such as that often used to teach mathematics since the transfer of information is mostly one way, from teacher to student. However, this does not hold true for classroom environments where students are expected to take on self-reliant roles wherein, for the most part, active and creative personalities seem to lead to success.

It is becoming ever more evident that active student use of the English language in Korean high schools is increasingly necessary for the purposes of helping the students enter top universities in Korea as well as abroad.

South Korea once had a strong vocational education system that it rebuilt its shattered economy after the Korean war. As the university degree grew in prominence to employers during the 1970s and 1980s, the shift to a more knowledge-based rather than an industrial economy resulted vocational education shifting in favor towards university degree for many young South Koreans and their parents. In the 1970s and 1980s, vocational education in South Korea was less than socially acceptable, yet it was the another pathway to succeed in obtaining a steady job with a decent income as well as elevate their socioeconomic status yet many vocational graduates were scorned and stigmatized by their college educated managers despite the importance of their skills for economic development.

With South Korea's high university entrance rate, the perception of vocational educational still remains in doubt in the minds of many South Koreans. In 2013, only 18 percent of students were enrolled in vocational education programs as it was due to the prestige of university—affluent families that were able to afford the tutoring that is now required for students to pass the notorious difficult college entrance exam and be able to attend university. With the pervasive bias against vocational education, vocational students are labeled as "underachievers", lack a formal higher educational background, and are often looked down upon as vocational jobs are known in Korea as the "3Ds" dirty, demeaning, and dangerous. In response, the South Korean government increased the number of spots in universities and the rate of university enrollment was 68.2 percent, an increase of 15 percent over 2014. As a result, to boost the positive image of vocational training, the South Korean government has been collaborating with countries such as Germany, Switzerland, and Austria to examine the innovative solutions that are being implemented to improve vocational education, training, and career options for young South Koreans as alternative to the traditional path of going to university.

According to a 2012 research report from The McKinsey Global Institute reckons that the lifetime value of a college graduate’s improved earnings no longer justifies the expense required to obtain the degree and have called on the need for more vocational education to counteract the human cost of performance pressure and the high unemployment rate among the country's university-educated youth. The South Korean government, schools, and industry with assistance from the Swiss government and industry are now revamping and modernizing the country's once strong vocational education sector with a network of vocational schools called "Meister Schools". The purpose of the Meister schools is to reduce the country's shortage of vocational occupations such as auto mechanics, plumbers, welders, boilermakers, electricians, carpenters, millwrights, machinists and machine operators as many of the positions go unfilled. In spite of the country’s high unemployment rate during the Great Recession, secondary vocational school graduates have been successful in navigating the workforce as they possess relevant skill sets that are in high demand in the South Korean economy.

Negative perception and stigmatization of vocational education continues to be the largest challenge in South Korea. The government is encouraging younger students to visit and see the programs for themselves firsthand to change their perception. Those in doubt on the quality of vocational education are encouraged to spend time working in industry during school vacations so they are up-to-date on current industry practices. Meister schools are continuing to be proving to be a good influence in changing the opinion of vocational education yet only 15,213 (5 percent) of high school students are enrolled in Meister schools with a lack of places unable to meet the demand despite a 100 percent employment rate. Meister students are now using these schools as an alternative path besides going to university; if a student works in industry for three years after graduating from a Meister, they are exempt from the extremely difficult university entrance exam. Nonetheless, the perception of vocational education is changing and slowly increasing in popularity as participating students are working in adult jobs and learning real skills that are highly valued in the current marketplace as vocational school graduates have been swamped with job offers in an otherwise slow economy. The initiative of Meister schools has even helped youth secure jobs at conglomerates such as Samsung over their peers who graduated from elite universities. South Korea has also streamlined its small and medium sized business sector along German lines to ease dependence on the large conglomerates ever since it began introducing Meister schools into its education system.