Comparing Teaching Experiences: The UK, South Africa and South Korea

Teaching abroad can be an inspiring experience that is done more and more by new ECT (early career) teachers in the UK. For myself, teaching in three different countries throughout my 20s and early 30s. It was a life-changing opportunity to see the world and grow as an educator. I started my career as a teacher at an all-boys high school in Yeong-ju South Korea at the age of 23 (incredibly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed), followed this up with 6 years working at a primary school in Cape Town, and have most recently spent my time working as a key stage 2 teacher at an independent school in North London.

There is something so unique about getting to experience the ins and outs of 3 different education systems. I have found key aspects like differentiation, state testing, school times, languages and a sense of citizenship vary incredibly depending on the part of the world you are teaching in. Having spent enough time working in the UK, I feel confident speaking about some of the things I have learned while being immersed in such varied classrooms worldwide.

A snowy morning at Yeongju Elementary School in South Korea

School Timings Change Learning

One of the biggest differences can be found in a typical British child’s timetable. A normal primary school day begins at 8:45 am for registration and ends at 3:15 pm - with time allocated for a midday meal in the lunch hall and play (mostly in the rain!) afterwards.

Comparatively, South Korean high schoolers are timetabled from 8:00am in the morning until 9.30pm at night with dedicated study sessions in the evenings. For the most part, children eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at school. As a NET (Native English Teacher) contracted until 4.30pm, it was shocking to realize that the children stay at school longer than you do! As the Suneung (or CSAT-College Scholastic Ability Test) for seniors draws closer, study nights are encouraged to become later and later.

Outdoor education day assembly at St George's Grammar School in Cape Town, South Africa.

Comparatively in South Africa, children finish school as early as 12.30pm on Fridays and tech lessons are often scheduled around loadshedding. (Loadshedding being daily pre-planned electricity outages to reduce demand on the national grid.) Children become accustomed to working within these scheduled time constraints and homework is tailored to accommodate these outages. With the better African weather, school days end around 2pm and children are highly encouraged to play school sports offered as extracurriculars.

In my time as an educator, I’ve noticed that time allocations in schools often give an insight into the values of a particular education system. Some countries value education above all else, some emphasize sport, while others look to keep literacy scores globally competitive while balancing wellbeing.

Admittedly, as a teacher new to the UK, it was a shock to dismiss children for the day into the early 4pm winter darkness - I had never left work in the dark. It was equally delightful to arrive at one of my rural schools in South Korea to see that lessons had been cancelled to help with the school's annual Kimchi-making season.  

Photo of me dressed up in traditional Hanbok (traditional South Korean dress). This was taken during my time living in South Korea. I visited the Jeonju Traditional Hanok Village.

Education Always Has a Cost

In the UK we are so fortunate to be able to attend school for free, even luckier that children in London receive a free lunch - this was not my experience in parts of South Africa where children are on feeding schemes or where students generally bring their own lunch each day. However, what I have learned is that no matter where you are in the world, sending a child to school comes with expenses!

In South Africa, school fees are mandatory and can vary from R400 (£15) a month to close to R9,000 (£420) a month depending on the school and its facilities. The fees create a massive inequality in education, with schools that have state-of-the-art facilities and others barely able to keep the lights on. Although the higher end of this is an outrageous amount to spend on education, I have realized that working in British independent schools (with rigorous 11-plus examinations) often presents its own set of hidden expenses. Additional prep, tutors, football lessons and revision courses are all part of the pressure parents face to get their children into local influential schools.

The annual campout at St George's Grammar School in Cape Town, South Africa.

Additionally, South Korean students have Hagwons (after-school academies) that drill English and additional subjects after school to help children succeed in a very competitive environment. Everywhere I have been to teach, there has been pressure on parents to pay more to help children get the edge they may need for the next step. It’s mind-boggling to think about the time and finances that go into putting a child through school across the world. 

Well-being and Citizenship Looks Different

One of the things that impressed me most about the national UK curriculum was how seriously it addressed personal well-being. There is a great emphasis on ensuring that a child develops empathy and an inclusive spirit. A well-developed PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) curriculum is emphasized to allow for children to be accepted in a country that is full of diversity and people from around the world.

Well-being is less emphasized in South Korea, but citizenship and lending a hand are at the core of raising young people. I remember asking a fellow teacher why the children were in trouble after seeing them cleaning the teacher's office each day. I assumed they must have been in a huge amount of trouble to be punished with mopping the floors of the office each afternoon. It was later explained that the children volunteer for this and it is encouraged that students take responsibility for cleaning the school year-round. Each time I awarded a chocolate for winning a game, students would divide the chocolate up in class, without question.

A typical cafeteria lunch meal at a primary school in South Korea.

Sharing appears to be taught so young that it's done without question. This is unlike my experience in my own home country of South Africa, where children ran and hid prizes in their bags for safekeeping and out of fear that they may be forced to split their winnings!

South African citizenship looks different where there is a sincere understanding of those who must live without 3 meals a day and a sense of school community and spirit. I remember many outdoor education days where assemblies were held outside to encourage children to be more aware of their environment as well as weekend ‘camp outs’ and braai (bbq’s) held on the school field for families to get to know teachers. 

In Summary

My biggest takeaway is that schools all look different but at the end of the day children are the same - most want to come to school and learn and deserve the best from their teachers. If you ever find yourself in a position to go and travel, and particularly to teach in another country, I couldn't recommend it enough. The comparisons made between the British system, the South Korean one and SA’s school system back home are invaluable.

I have learned that each has its major strengths and that we would all do a lot better as educators if we shared these ideas more often. I would credit the UK’s major efforts to differentiate for the individual. Differentiation on this scale has happened nowhere else I have ever taught.

As a young teacher, take the leap and go and learn to make Kimchi in class, go camping in the South African bush with your students and most of all open your eyes to some innovative and different ways of teaching young minds! 

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Claire S


A dedicated Maths and English tutor (*11 plus prep experienced)

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