June 21, 2016

Background on English Language “Cram Schools” in East Asia


The Cambridge Institute supports the educational dreams of international high school students throughout the country. However, we understand that we play a small role in the international educational industry that supports more than five million students traveling worldwide for education. In countries around the world, families are seeking additional English language training. Many turn to private language academies to bring their children up to the speed of a native speaker. This is especially true in East Asia, where the recession-proof business of English language training centers, or English language “cram schools” is estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

Background on East Asian English Language “Cram Schools” or Training Centers

Students with international aspirations are always looking to gain a competitive edge over their peers, especially if they are planning on studying in an English speaking country. In many countries around the world, English education is compulsory; for example, it is estimated that English is taught to 93% of children at the lower secondary level.

East and South Asia as a whole is catching up to this level and already have compulsory programs in China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Philippines, India and others. If English education is not mandatory, it is offered as a foreign language. Though this is a great step towards attaining second language fluency, the subject prioritization in these countries has caused some problems with quality control.

Many of the aforementioned countries have a rich tradition of excellence in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. As the desire to study in English speaking countries continues to rise, the desire to be a better English speaker becomes a necessity. To fill the gap between weak public school offers and demanding requirements in the future, English training centers have stepped in to serve this market.

Different Kinds of English Training Centers

Though some English Language cram schools offer specialized courses, many have foreign faculty who are native English speakers.


Photo by Brian Yap / CC BY

An English training center can be called many things in English or a foreign language: hagwon (South Korea), buxiban (China/Taiwan), juku (Japan), cram school, ESL center, ESL school, English academy, or a combination of terms. Each offer different curriculums, teaching styles, age ranges, talent ranges, foreign faculty, and subject specialization. And each school promises to prepare students using their own methodology.

No matter the offer or the mode of delivery, the goal remains the same: to improve the speaking, writing, listening, and understanding of the English language. Even if a non-native speaker doesn’t wish to study in the United States or England, speaking a foreign language can help with a domestic college application, future career, or general passion for speaking to others from a different culture.

A Day in the Life at an English Training Center

The outside of a school might be deceiving, since some of the schools can be located in office towers in low or high rise buildings.


Photo by Steve Slep / CC BY

English training centers are open following a normal school day and are usually open on the weekends to accommodate a regular student’s schedule. The inside of an English language cram school looks like a typical primary or secondary school with desks facing the front towards the proctor, blackboard/whiteboard, or a projection screen. The outside of a school might be deceiving, since some of the schools can be located in office towers in low or high rise buildings.

These schools have a singular purpose, there isn’t any need for other amenities like a gymnasium or cafeteria. Class size depends on the characteristics of the student body, such as their age or their language ability, and the teachers could be from abroad or local. There is a competitive advantage to having native speakers on the teaching payroll, especially if they are from a foreign country, but it is not always available. Since most foreign teachers receive higher salaries than their local counterparts, it can be hard to retain that talent if the school is small.

The Price of Cram School Classes

Students who study at English training centers with responsible ownership are noticeably accomplished in the language.

English Language Cram Schools Feature

Photo by Brian Yap / CC BY

English language centers are privately run and the prices for classes range from a few hundred USD to a few thousand. Price depends on the scope of the class; a kindergarten class full of songs, games, alphabet and an atmosphere like a daycare could cost significantly less than a GRE prep class for advanced degree seekers. And there are a wide range of classes to choose from, including standardized testing preparation (TOEFL being the most popular), testing preparation for professional certifications, creative writing, public speaking, or just plain English instruction. Students who study at English training centers with responsible ownership are noticeably accomplished in the language. Most of the classes focus on the foundational, academic elements of language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. If the school is lucky enough to have native speaking teachers, all the instruction will obviously be given in English and that is an added bonus.

The popularity of these programs is astounding, especially in China, Taiwan, and South Korea. In 2010, a Director of a popular language center estimated that 80% of Taiwanese youth attend buxibans to prepare kids for the competitive university entrance examinations. In that same year, South Korea reported that 74% of all students engaged in at least some kind of after-school education with the average price tag of $2,600 per year.

A Recession-Proof Business

Many South Korean families will rearrange their finances in order to send their child to English language cram schools, fearing the consequences of not sending their child for additional education.


Photo by Rex Pe / CC BY

Having taught at cram schools in both Korea and Taiwan, neither the popularity of attendance or the high price of additional English language cram school classes are surprising to me. My experience was extremely positive and rewarding, but I did start to learn about a darker side of this education.

A South Korean colleague pitched hagwons as “recession proof” and had complimented my choice in career options because of Korean family’s willingness to rearrange their finances in order to afford additional English instruction. During the international financial woes of the late 2000s, our school did not see any negative changes in enrollment nor did any of the branch locations close in greater Seoul.

Some mothers and fathers confided in me they feared what would happen if they didn’t send their kids to these programs. The industry in Seoul became so out of control that the municipal government passed legislation to limit the amount an institution could charge and limiting their teaching hours. A 10:00pm curfew was established and those operating past this time could be fined heavily. Even with government intervention, schools will operate in secret and most surprisingly, parents continually challenge the government’s stance and ask to appeal.

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