Insight Note

Investing in Foundational Skills First: A Case from South Korea

Key Points

  • Foundational learning in the first two decades post-independence was supported by a historical context that cultivated high demand for quality, equitable education; 
  • Adoption and adaptation of policies from elsewhere took place in an atmosphere of healthy debate between foreign advisors, domestic policy-makers, and educators; and 
  • A close coupling of educational policies with economic development strategies resulted in cascading investment in successively higher levels of education across multiple decades.


Image of Deborah Spindelman

Deborah Spindelman

Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge

In the aftermath of Japanese occupation and the Korean war, South Korea built a schooling system that today is consistently ranked among the top five countries worldwide for reading and mathematics, and in the top ten for science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (OECD, 2014). Its consistent high ranking against wealthier countries, as well as the role of education in transforming Korea’s economy while retaining a relatively low (4.3 percent) level of spending as a portion of GDP (World Bank, 2022), has cemented its reputation among low- and middle-income countries as a model to emulate. As a result, South Korea has transformed itself in a few decades from one of the world’s poorest countries at independence, to the world’s fifteenth largest economy (Ministry of Education, 2015) with much of this attributed to an educational system which first prioritised a consistent, quality foundation of reading and basic maths for students regardless of gender, wealth, or region.

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Spindelman, D. 2023. Investing in Foundational Skills First: A Case from South Korea. RISE Insight Series. 2023/052.