International schools come in many shapes and sizes in Korea. Teaching at an international school can be the experience of a lifetime or a complete nightmare, depending on the school and its management. Here are some things to be aware of when considering international schools in Korea, whether you’re a teacher looking for work or a parent looking for a good place to educate your kids.
Perhaps one of the most significant factors when considering an international school is accreditation. There are several ways that a school could be recognized in South Korea. The best, most trustworthy schools will obviously be accredited by a reputable board, whether Korean or foreign.
The biggest international schools with the strictest requirements for teachers and facilities will be international schools recognized as such by the Korean government. Officially recognized international schools have to meet government-approved standards, and teachers must be appropriately educated, licensed, and experienced in their fields of study. Real registered international schools are typically sizeable, reputable, and well-funded with their own property and facilities.
Other Accreditation Councils
Many private international schools may also have accreditations or memberships associated with various international school associations and councils that all have their own standards and requirements. Schools with these accreditations and memberships may or may not be registered as schools with the Korean government. There are too many different associations to list exhaustively here, but a few memberships and accreditation associations you might see include East Asia Regional Council of Schools (EARCOS), Korea Council of Overseas Schools (KORCOS), and Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). Also be aware that some organizations offer different levels of membership, such as full membership and associate membership. Lower levels of membership may or may not guarantee serious standards from member schools.
Whatever accreditations or councils you see a school advertising on their website, you should do your own investigation into what those associations actually mean and what their standards are. Reputable organizations have high standards and ensure that their members continue to uphold those standards to maintain membership, while other no-name associations are simply there to make things look official without really checking up on their members or guaranteeing any kind of standard.
Lack of accreditation should be an immediate red flag to teachers and parents alike. A school without some kind of accreditation may be a small, perfectly well-meaning private school, but without some kind of official recognition, it may be difficult to tell. If a school you are interested in is not accredited, here are a few things you can ask to dig deeper:
- When was the school founded? A young school may not have been open long enough to get accredited yet. Some organizations require that a school be in operation for a certain number of years to be eligible for membership or accreditation. The accreditation process may also take several years to complete. If a school has been operating for several years and has not bothered to begin some kind of accreditation process, they have probably chosen not to—likely because they don’t want to do what it takes to become accredited or they already know they won’t be approved.
- Have they started the accreditation process? If so, how far along are they? Some unaccredited schools may say that they are still in the process of becoming accredited. This may be true, but some have been saying this for years just to sound good but actually have no intention of becoming accredited. If it’s been a long time since a school supposedly started the process and they’re still not very far along, they’re probably not really going to get accredited anytime soon.
- Were they previously accredited? Some schools have previously been accredited but lost their accreditation or let it expire. They might even leave their framed certificate on the wall for everyone to see, knowing that nobody is actually going to look at the date. There is not really a good reason for a previously accredited school to no longer be accredited. They’ve either let their standards slip, or they’re too cheap and lazy to keep up with the renewal process. Even if they have a legitimate reason for no longer being accredited by a certain organization, they should at least be in the process of joining another.
- Why are they unaccredited? It is possible that a small private school may be great at what they do but truly lack the means or facilities to become accredited, but most schools should have some kind of motivation to seek accreditation. Even a small private school would need a pretty convincing answer to this question to still seem legitimate in any way.
If the management of a school can’t answer the questions on this list honestly and convincingly, the school is probably not worth any more of your time or consideration.
Closely related to accreditation, a school’s registration within Korea determines a lot about the standards and requirements a school must meet. International schools registered as schools with the Korean government must follow strict requirements and guidelines like any other Korean school would have to. However, not all supposed international schools in Korea are actually registered as schools. In fact, a lot of them aren’t.
Many small international schools are only registered as hagwons or miscellaneous businesses. Although hagwons are academic in nature, they are still just businesses in the eyes of the Korean government. Hagwons are not schools, and their teachers are only required to have an E-2 visa for teaching conversational English.
Because of the relative ease of starting and running a hagwon, it is not uncommon for low-budget international schools to have conversational English classes like any other hagwon in the afternoons while having international school classes during regular school hours. Since they are only registered as hagwons, such schools can easily hire teachers that only have to get E-2 visas rather than the E-7 or F-series visas teachers would usually have at registered international schools.
Hagwon status and its academic nature gives sub-par international schools the apparent legitimacy of some kind of registration and membership within the Korean hagwon association, but it still doesn’t make them real schools, even if the words international school are part of their names. To unsuspecting foreigners, hagwon registration might be enough to make a small operation seem like a legitimate school, but hagwons are actually just businesses and do not have to meet the same criteria as actual schools.
The more highly-accredited a school is, the stricter the curriculum requirements are likely to be. The important thing is that a school has a proper, reputable curriculum of some kind and that they stick to it properly. Different accreditation organizations have their own curriculum standards, so things will vary from school to school.
A good school will use reputable, up-to-date curricula and textbooks. Students and teachers alike will be properly equipped with the textbooks they need for each subject. The school will be able to confidently show and explain their curriculum and textbooks to prospective employees and students.
A sketchy school might not even have proper textbooks or materials. In some cases the teachers might not even have the books or materials they need and be left to come up with their own plans and materials. Particularly bad or poorly equipped schools (probably of the unaccredited hagwon flavor) may end up photocopying books and printing a hodgepodge of free worksheets off the internet rather than providing everyone with appropriate textbooks and materials. Always ask to see the curriculum and textbooks a school uses. If they can’t or won’t show you a thorough and complete curriculum with appropriate textbooks and materials for every subject, they’re probably hiding something.
Faculty and Staff
As the word international implies, an international school would typically have a lot of international teachers. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, but the point of having an international school is to teach international students in a language that they can all understand, typically English. It’s normal to have some local Korean teachers too, but many of the faculty and staff at a legitimate international school are likely to be foreigners.
More importantly, the staff at a real international school will have to meet certain requirements to be hired. To work at an official international school, faculty will typically need to be licensed teachers with master’s degrees in their fields of study to get E-7 visas. Teachers who have been in country for a while may also have F-series visas instead.
If the teachers at an international school are not licensed or are hired on E-2 visas, then the school is not registered with the government as a true international school. It is probably only registered as a hagwon at best.
Reputable international schools will typically have their own property and buildings. They should have all or most of the equipment and facilities you’d expect at a normal school anywhere else. Small-time private schools and hagwons will often just be renting a building, or even just a floor or two of one. Really low-budget operations will have bare minimum classroom supplies and equipment. The smaller and sketchier the facilities, the more alert you should be for other red flags. Always ask for a tour, even if it has to be by video call.
Avoiding Bad Schools and Hagwons
If you’re a teacher looking for work, you might consider getting hired through a recruiter to make sure you end up at a legitimate school or hagwon. And whether you’re a teacher, parent, or student, you should check out some of these review sites and blacklists for schools and hagwons to avoid:
- ESL Watch institute reviews
- Hagwon Blacklist Facebook group
- Hagwon Blacklist Korea on Reddit
- International Schools Review
- Tokyo Jon’s Korean Blacklist
These lists and reviews are far from exhaustive, but it’s good to at least make sure a school you’re considering isn’t on a blacklist. If you’re up for a little more digging around online, you might also consider joining a Facebook group for foreigners living in the same city. Other foreign teachers in the same city have likely at least heard about the other hagwons and schools in their area and may be able to give you specific information that you won’t find anywhere else online.
Depending on what you are looking for, it may not matter to you if a school is public or private, government-funded or small-time and unaccredited. After all, it is possible to get a good education from good people without fancy facilities and accreditations. That being said though, the more highly-accredited and government-regulated a school is, the easier it will be to know exactly what you’re getting into. Especially when considering small private schools, be sure to do your own due diligence and ask lots of questions to make sure they are legitimate.