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Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 17:07 GMT
S Korean students face do-or-die exam
UK students in library
Korean students are far more stressed than their UK counterparts
By the BBC's Caroline Gluck in Seoul

Tens of thousands of students in South Korea are taking a test on Wednesday that is likely to decide the course of the rest of their lives.

It is the national college entrance examination.

If I do badly in this exam, it's almost like the end of my life

Student, Doo Sung Ho
Not only is it a nerve-wracking time for those taking the exam - but it is just as stressful for parents whose near-obsession for academic excellence has been a driving force in South Korea's development.

Such is the importance of the test that people travel to work an hour later in the morning, to reduce the rush hour traffic so that students can get to their exams on time.

There are lucky charms, like four-leafed clovers and forks - encouraging students to "pick" the right answers.

Prayer ritual

For the past three months, Youn Mija has come to pray for her son, at a temple, nestled in the mountains on the northern outskirts of the capital, Seoul.

The ritual is carefully observed. She makes 108 bows - an auspicious number in Buddhism. Many women do exactly the same: fervently pray for their children's success in the national university entrance exams.

Youn Mija says the family has spent nearly $2,000 a month to ensure the best tuition for her eldest son.

"Most people in Korea believe that you have to go into the best universities to succeed in life," she says. "I think the children know that too and they're under a lot of stress to go to university - and not just that, but the best university.

"Parents want the best for their children, so they're very stressed now.

"It's a big social problem - and I think its a problem in our education system."

'The end of my life'

Her son, 18-year-old Doo Sung Ho, has been studying for the crucial test for years. On top of daytime classes, there is extra studying at night school, followed by private tutoring.

He is hoping to get a place at one of South Korea's top three universities.

"If I do badly in this exam, it's almost like the end of my life," he says. "It has a domino effect.

"If I do poorly in the exam, I'll go to a bad college; if I go to a bad college, I'll get a bad job.

"It's very important that I do well in this exam."

New system

The pressure the current system puts on children and their families is enormous. Recent figures show that emigration figures have risen sharply - and education is the main factor.

Shim Min Chul, from the ministry of education, says the government is trying to address the problem.

"Previously students were selected on the basis of a single examination which tested their memory skills," he says. "But because of complaints from parents and teachers, we've made some changes this year.

"We've introduced a system allowing universities to pre-select students, based on their special skills and aptitudes."

Alternative education

Many children cannot cope with the current system. Last year, around 60,000 children dropped out of school. Community-funded alternatives are springing up - placing more emphasis on creativity than exams.

"In normal schools, there are too many rules; it's too rigid," says one Korean girl. "I didn't have friends I could relate to.

"I didn't like anything about it."

Another girl says she prefers the alternative school because she can meet friends like her.

"I can be close to my teachers," she says. "It's nothing like my old school."

One boy says he did not like the teachers at his old school.

"I was scolded when I was late," he says. "I had too much homework.

"I didn't like it."

Pressures for educational reform are increasing. Critics say there needs to be a wider shift in Korean society so that people are judged more on what they can do rather than who they know and where they went to university.

The BBC's Caroline Gluck in Seoul
"Not only is it a nerve-wracking time for those taking the exam, it is just as stressful for parents"
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