Why is homeschooling illegal in North Korea

Parents teaching their kids at home say results are good but kids sometimes need more company


For expatriates with children to raise, living in Korea brings new educational concerns.

If they can find somewhere for their children to live, sending them to their native countries is an option. If they can afford it, the parents may try an international school. And if they feel their child is sufficiently acclimated to Korea, they may go with the public school system.

Some parents, though, try something much closer to home.

At home in Korea

Pieter Gey van Pittius and his wife Marina came to Korea in August 2006, and have since worked as English teachers, first in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, then in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province.

During that time their two daughters have grown up here. Nicolette, 19, completed her secondary education last year and is dedicating one year to missionary work in Africa before starting higher education.

Her sister Petro will complete the equivalent of a high school education in the United States come September 2012, but will study for another two years to qualify for prestigious European institutions of higher learning.

And she has plenty of time: Petro is 14.

Both have also learned Korean in their time here; Nicolette once finished second in a speech contest ― against Koreans.

Their parents credit much of their achievements to homeschooling, using the Cambridge University IGCSE system offered by the British International Distance College of Education. It was a process that began before coming here, though: Gey van Pittius said they have been homeschooled for eight years, starting in their native South Africa.

“We wanted to give our children a good Christian foundation and the best way to do that was to do homeschooling,” said Gey van Pittius, whose family is Seventh-day Adventist.

“We also wanted to be involved as much as possible with our children and homeschooling gave us that opportunity.”

And it is that involvement that Gey van Pittius cites as homeschooling’s biggest advantage.

“Homeschooling can ― and has in our case ― strengthen your relationship with your children,” he said. “You also have more control over the curriculum. I would say that, if it is done with commitment and care, the quality of your child’s education is of a very high standard.”

Gey van Pittius saw evidence of this ― and an additional reason to continue homeschooling ― during a stint sending Petro to public school in Jinju starting February 2008. The purpose was to alleviate her loneliness, and at first the results were promising.

“At first she was a novelty, they were friendly,” Gey van Pittius recalled. However, he said she quickly began outperforming her classmates in most subjects and became the victim of “extreme racism.”

The exclusion and harassment Petro suffered reached the point where she had nightmares, he said. By September of the same year Petro was being homeschooled again.

To provide more social interaction, the family has turned to the church, but also extracurricular activities such as ballet lessons.

Gey van Pittius said that he and his wife have had to spend at least two hours per day helping the girls with their class work, though the load has diminished as they’ve grown older.

“... They became very independent and most of the time now, we only check the work and help them with problem areas,” he said. “It is not as bad now as it used to be when they were very small.”

Furthermore, there’s the additional expense, not only of the teaching materials themselves, but of having them shipped to East Asia.

“You are also much more on your own as parents and don’t have the support that we used to have in South Africa,” he said.

In addition to their academic achievements, he cites his daughters’ spiritual growth, independence, maturity and relative resistance to peer pressure as positives.

“These are not my opinions but the opinions of others who interact with our children on a regular basis,” he said.

Students for whom he would not recommend homeschooling include children with learning disabilities, and those who are not “independent students.”

When children are very young, too young to use the Cambridge system, Gey van Pittius recommends the Griggs International Homeschooling program.

When they start their higher education, Nicolette will study languages and Petro music.

Not for every child

Horace Jeffery Hodges, who teaches at Ewha Womans University in Seoul and is best-known in Korea for the Gypsy Scholar blog, has been homeschooling his 14-year-old daughter, Sa-Rah Ahyoga Hwang, for three years. 

Horace Jeffery Hodges tutors his daughter, Sa-Rah Ahyoga Hwang, on John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” at their home in Seoul. (Rob York)


“I’ve been homeschooling them both in English and various things since they were tiny, but both also went to Korean elementary schools from the beginning,” said Hodges, who married Hwang Sun-ae in 1995.

“When Sa-Rah reached middle school, we decided to stop her Korean education because some of the teachers used corporal punishment, not just for infractions of the rules but for giving the incorrect answers to questions of contents.”

Furthermore, Hodges wasn’t happy with the lack of discussion in class and said students were able to ask few questions. So, since then Sa-Rah has been studying online through the Keystone School based in the U.S. As Hodges is a native of Arkansas, both children have dual citizenship, making it possible for him to take them out of public schooling here.

The plan had been to continue her education this way, and then begin homeschooling her little brother, 11-year-old En-Uk Sequoya Hwang when he reached middle school. However, recently their plans changed, and they intend to put Sa-Rah back into public school when she reaches the ninth grade. It’s not that there weren’t benefits to homeschooling ― Hodges said that Sa-Rah’s research and writing skills blossomed ― but during that time she became less outgoing.

Like the Gey van Pittius family, they had worked to counteract this at least partly through churchgoing ― the family attends an international congregation ― as well as social activities and making use of her former social connections.

Still, Sa-Rah sounds ready to return to socializing the way most children her age do.

“I miss my friends and social activities we had at school,” Sa-Rah said, adding that there are also academic benefits. “I like to compete, that kind of makes me want to study.”

Though she is half-Korean and speaks the language, Sa-Rah does not look like her peers in the Korean public school system. Still, aside from the occasional cultural faux pas ― such as misunderstandings resulting from her looking her teachers in the eye when they talk ― she has no horror stories akin to Petro’s experience.

“I did get a lot of attention, but I didn’t feel anything bad,” she said.

Sa-Rah’s homeschooling experience has required more effort from her parents, particularly her mother, as Hodges had already been tutoring her at home.

“I no longer have to teach every course using a textbook. I can now check her work and guide her with advice, teach her how to do research and related things. That’s more interesting for me, so it’s easier,” he said.

“For my wife, it is also easier, I think, but causes a bit more worry since the school system is different, leaving my wife uncertain of how best to assist her.”

As for the expense, Hodges said that while it costs more than public education, it is less expensive than an international school in Korea. Exactly how much depends on how involved one can be with their child’s education.

“If one has lots of time, the expense is minor but time-consuming since one has to teach everything,” he said. “But an online school can cost a good deal, e.g., at least a couple thousand dollars per year.”

Despite moving on, Hodges can see an upside to homeschooling: “The benefits derive from the research-based coursework that the online school offers,” he said. “The teachers stress creativity and independent thinking. I’m not yet sure if memorization is stressed enough.”

So, when she returns to her education outside the home, Hodges will continue to help her with reading, learning to research and writing essays. He also plans to continue tutoring his son in the humanities while keeping him in public school and planning for their futures.

“I’ll have to maybe administer the practice tests for the PSAT,” he said. “Although Korean schools seem to be good at teaching test-taking.”

By Rob York ([email protected])