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How many elementary schools will turn to parking lots in South Korea?

Updated: Mar 5

Introduction


“Childlessness” is not about couples anymore. Some countries are becoming childless. Low fertility is a huge problem in South Korea. According to my analysis that I'll show in this post, it is expected that 25-30% of elementary schools may have to close down in the near future.


Click to expand for why I became interested in this issue


This year alone, 157 elementary schools (out of ~6000 total elementary schools in the country) did not have any students coming in. [1] Around 2000 newly certified teachers, who attended universities specialized for primary education and passed national board exam, are now waiting for their first appointment just because not many primary schools are hiring. [2]


How bad will it be in the future? In this post, I calculate the number of elementary schools that will be no longer needed because of declining number of children. It is expected that more than 2000 schools may have to close down due to population structure changes within 10-30 years.


 

Summary


  • South Korea’s fertility declined very fast in the recent decades.

  • Some education resources (including teachers and school facilities) are no longer needed because there are not many children.

  • By 2030, between 1500 and 2000 elementary schools are expected to close down if all schools keep its school size at 430 students per school (current size).

  • By 2050, South Korea would only need 3500-4000 elementary schools, which requires closure of 2000-2500 school closures.

 


Extremely low fertility in South Korea.


Figure 1. Live births in 1,000s (bar) and TFR (line) by year, 2000-2022. Visualized using Korea Statistical Information Service (KOSIS) data. [3]



South Korea experienced a steep decline in fertility. From 1950, the total fertility ratee (TFR) decreased by half every 25 years. The TFR was around 6 in 1950. By 1975, it dropped to 3, by 1975 and to 1.5 by 2000. It finally reached less than 0.8 by 2022, few years before another 25 year-round. Each generation had half the number of children compared to their mother’s generation, if we take 25-30 year as one generation. Same story holds for live births. Live births also decreased by half from 2000 to 2022.



Primary education in South Korea.


Figure 2. Elementary school enrollment ratio (bar) and average number of students per teacher (line), 1980-2020. Source: World Bank and KOSIS.


Almost all elementary school-aged children attend school in South Korea. The World Bank estimated that 99 percent of elementary school-aged children in South Korea were enrolled in 2021. From 1971, enrollment fluctuated between 97 and 104 percent, and this proportion did not vary significantly between boys and girls.


What has changed is the student-to-teacher relationship. In the 1980s, there were 47.5 students per teacher in elementary schools. By 2010, this number decreased to 18.8 students, and now it stands at 13.3 students per teacher. This represents a 72% reduction from 1980.




Figure 3. Number of elementary schools (pink bar), number of students in elementary school (blue line) and average number of students per school (green line), 1999-2022. Source: KOSIS.


To estimate the number of schools needed (or no longer needed) for the future, we also need to know how many students are in each school. According to KOSIS education data, around 2.7 million children went to elementary school in 2022. From the figure, we can see that this number (2.7M) represents around a 35% reduction from its peak in 2003.

 

As the number of students decreased, the number of students per school also decreased. The average number of children per school decreased from 764 in 2003 to 432 in 2022.


Now that pupil-to-teacher ratio is low enough, the decline in children population started to affect the number of schools. So far, South Korea has responded to declining number of children by reducing the number of class size (as shown in Figure 2) instead of reducing the number of schools. Now, however, decisions are to close down or merge schools instead of further reducing class sizes.


 

Future (Population) of South Korea.


Figure 4. Estimated and projected population for female (left) and male (right) from IHME 2020 (green), KOSIS 2023 (red), WIC 2023 (blue), and WPP 2022 (yellow), 2000-2100


There are some sets of population projections that help us have a general idea about what we should expect. Other than information available from KOSIS (red lines), some other organizations make population forecasts at the country level. United Nations Population Division publishes World Population Prospects (WPP, blue lines) every 2 years. [4] Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Human Capital (WIC, yellow lines) recently published an update of population forecast. [5] Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME, green lines) has also published national-level population forecasts in 2020. [6]


The newer versions of projections (i.e. KOSIS, WIC and WPP) report that South Korea’s population has already peaked, while the numbers are slightly different across sources. This means that the population will only decrease in the future. Although it’s not shown in this figure, when comparing different versions of projections (e.g. comparing WPP 2019 and WPP 2022 releases) almost all projections entities are lowering their future forecasts because fertility rates in Korea is dropping much faster than we expected.


Whether this discrepancy really mean anything depends on what we use these for. Around 2 million difference between sources for male and female is not regarded as “terribly” huge discrepancy compared to the world population. However, it can still account for 10 to 20 percent of total population in South Korea by the end of the century.



Future of (elementary) schools.


Figure 5. Estimated and projected population between ages 7 and 12 for female (left) and male (right) from KOSIS 2023 (red), WIC 2023 (blue), and WPP 2022 (yellow), 2000-2100


The number of children between age 7 and 12 (i.e. elementary school aged-children) is expected to show very steep drop between 2020 to 2030. In 2020, the number of children was expected to be around 1.3 million across all three sources. By 2030, there will be between 750 thousand (KOSIS estimate) to 1 million (WIC estimate) children. By 2050, there will be 750 thousand to 800 thousand, with some fluctuation in between.

 

It may be worth noting that WIC and KOSIS only published population projection data in 5-year age group and did not have population projections for single-year age. Therefore, I assumed that each single-year population would be 1/5 of 5-year age-group population. To calculate children age between 7 to 12, I took 60% of population between age 5 and 9 as population aged between 7 and 9, and 60% of population between age 10 and 14 as population aged between 10 and 12.



So, how many schools will close down?


Figure 6. Number of schools in the past (black). Expected number of schools needed assuming 430 students per school using population projection from KOSIS 2023 (red), WIC 2023 (blue) and WPP 2022 (yellow).


Because of the expected drop of children aged 7 to 12, South Korea will only need 4000-4500 schools by 2030 if average number of students per school is set to 430. By 2050. South Korea will need to close down at least 2000 elementary schools, which is more than 30% of the current number of elementary schools, because there are not enough students, assuming the same average number of students per school.


One important point that these estimates show is that the steepest decline is expected in this decade, and therefore we don’t have much time to prepare for this. After 2030, it is expected to stay fairly stable until 2060, where we see a big drop in the number of children once again.


Wrap-up


What are we going to do with these schools? This analysis showed that major closure and merger of elementary schools will happen in the very imminent future. We might not have enough time to think about how we should be using these facilities. As it becomes more childless, South Korea's policy attention should also focus on restructuring resources and alleviating sudden changes in societal structure.



References



 

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