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SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean children won't be getting that hoped for recess after all, now that the government has dropped plans for a 10 p.m. curfew on "cram schools" offering students an edge in a highly competitive education system.
South Korean teens are often in the classroom for 10-12 hours a day or more, preparing for university entrance exams that can determine if they will enter a top school leading to an elite career path.
Last year, about three out of four South Korean students received some form of private education after school hours. The money spent on cram schools and tutors totaled 20.9 trillion won ($16.75 billion), according to the National Statistical Office.
The education ministry, ruling party lawmakers, and cram school industry executives said the curfew would limit the freedom of choice of parents as well as local governments who should have autonomy in setting education policies.
Experts on adolescent development said late-night cram schools have no place in a healthy childhood.
"These late night classes for children and teenagers ... can lead to various problems, including a lack of sleep that decreases the effectiveness of learning while raising issues of mental health," said Woo Ok-yeong from Health Education Forum, a child advocacy organization.
The government has tried to cut down on the costs of private education by offering cram school-like classes after hours at public schools with tuition fees that might be less than half the costs of a formal cram school, called "hagwon" in Korean.
The youngsters complete a regular school day and then go to what is often a separate school to take classes that help them prepare for entrance exams, finishing up at about 6-10 p.m.
Even this is not enough for some parents, who then send their children to a hagwon, where they file out near midnight to rub elbows with drunken businessmen flowing out of bars.
"The system in its current form is flawed," said Choi Hae-youn, secretary-general of a leading hagwon association. "If schools let students go home by at least 6 p.m., we hagwons would not have to have late-night classes."
Few in the country believe cram schools are going away any time soon, with parents looking for any competitive edge to help their children, education experts say.
High education costs have helped push South Korea to one of the lowest fertility rates in the developed world, they say.
The costs and pressures have also led some to simply opt out of the domestic school system, with fathers, who are typically the breadwinners, living in spartan style in South Korea to pay the costs of sending mothers and children overseas for education.
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Bill Tarrant