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24 April 2024

Beating ban stirs debate in South Korean schools


With the new school year starting in March, high school teacher Jennifer Chung is worried about coping without her longtime classroom companion - a hickory stick for smacking misbehaving students.

"I don't know if I can survive the jungle of 40 restless boys in each class, let alone keeping them quiet with no means to punish them," said the 36-year-old maths teacher in Gyeonggi province surrounding Seoul.

Education authorities in Seoul, the country's largest school district with 1.36 million pre-college students, last November banned corporal punishment.

Gyeonggi and one other province followed suit, with the new rule to take effect there in March. 

The move has sparked intense debate in South Korea, where education is highly valued and physical punishment has long been tolerated - if not encouraged - to discipline students and push them to excel.

Entry to a prestigious college or university largely determines a career path and even marriage prospects. So parents and teachers often drive children to work harder through physical pain.

Slapping or spanking is a common punishment for missing homework, performing poorly in exams or chatting too loudly during class. 

Children breaking school rules may be ordered to do push-ups, hold their arms straight above their heads or walk the playground in a squatting position known as a "duck-walk".

One survey showed about 70 per cent of high school students experience corporal punishment. But injuries from severe beatings have sometimes led to bitter lawsuits filed by parents and jail terms for teachers.

Kim Dong-Seok, a spokesman for the Korean Federation of Teachers Unions, said overcrowded classrooms and pressure to get students into good colleges prompt educators to rely on tough and quick discipline.

"With about 40 students in each class and all parents demanding that their children go to good colleges, you just can't do the job without physical punishment," he said.

Each class in South Korean schools has 35.3 students on average, one of the highest among OECD member countries whose average is 23.9. "It's the parents who still want teachers to use physical methods to make their children fare better in exams," Kim said.

But a four-minute video clip of a Seoul elementary school classroom made public in July ignited a debate that for long was the preserve of minority groups of liberal teachers and parents.

A cellphone video taken by a pupil showed a cursing and yelling middle-aged teacher smack the face of a sixth grader, hurl him to the floor and kick him repeatedly.

Seoul's education office, headed by a newly-elected former liberal education activist, seized on the public fury to ban all corporal punishment in schools later that year.

"Corporal punishment is barbaric, inhumane and often used by teachers simply to release their own anger. What's worse, it makes youngsters take violence in everyday life for granted," said Cho Shin, a spokesman for the office.

"No one had mustered the courage to put an end to this vicious, longstanding cycle. But now is the time to end it, no matter how tough it is doing so," he told .