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Low birthrate blamed for closure of Korean Catholic kindergartens

South Korea has one of the world's lowest fertility rate and rapidly rising ageing population
A teacher leads a class in South Korean capital Seoul in this file image. The East Asian nation is struggling with a demographic crisis fueled by low birth rates and rising elderly population.

A teacher leads a class in South Korean capital Seoul in this file image. The East Asian nation is struggling with a demographic crisis fueled by low birth rates and rising elderly population. (Photo: AFP)

Published: January 10, 2024 11:50 AM GMT
Updated: January 10, 2024 11:57 AM GMT

About 36 percent of kindergarten schools and daycare centers run by Catholic Church in South Korea have declined due to various factors such as low birthrate, an aging workforce, and a lack of interest among parishes, says a survey report.

Church-run kindergartens and daycare centers dropped to 212 in March 2023 from 345 in 2017, according to the "Report on the Current Situation of Catholic Early Childhood Education Institutions in Korea."

The report was released by the Early Childhood Education Subcommittee of the Korean Catholic Bishops' Conference, the Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation of Korea (CPBC) reported on Jan. 10.

Father Park Jong-soo, director of the Seoul Archdiocesan Youth Bureau and Early Childhood Department said that many of the closed kindergartens have been running despite a drop in demand.

"It would be desirable to eliminate small, poorly equipped county kindergartens and focus on larger ones,” Park said.

The "decline in enrollment,” was the main reason for the closure of 14 of the 18 early childhood centers in the country between 2021 and 2022, the report said.

The remaining facilities were closed citing reasons such as church reconstruction, lack of religious personnel, and conversion to general management, the report pointed out.

Flora Shin Yoo-rim, a professor of childhood studies at the Catholic University of Korea lamented the decline in demand for the services of the highly regarded church-run kindergartens.

"The kindergartens run by the Catholic Church were so trusted and well-regarded in the community that people would line up at dawn to get in," Shin said.

"When I saw the kindergartens struggling to recruit children, I didn't expect the enthusiasm to diminish so quickly,” she lamented.

The challenges faced by the kindergartens were multi-faceted and contributed to the decline in their numbers, the report said.

Some of the other reasons for the closure of kindergartens were the constant decline in birthrate and an aging workforce in the country.

The live births in South Korea had declined by 4.3 percent from 260,562 in 2021 to 249,186 in 2022, according to the latest data published by Statistics Korea.

The state-run agency also reported that the total fertility rate in the country also declined to a record low of 0.7 in the second quarter of 2023. There were 56,087 newborn babies in the second quarter of 2023, a drop of 6.8 percent in the same period last year.

About 18.4 percent of South Korea’s estimated 51.5 million population are aged 65 and above, the agency reported.

The survey also reported a sharp decline in vocations and the aging religious personnel as a reason for the closure of the kindergarten facilities.

The newly ordained priests in the country had declined to 87 in 2023 from 131 in 2011, a decrease of 35 percent, according to the Statistics of the Catholic Church in Korea released in February 2023.

The number of students at seminaries nationwide decreased by about 30 percent from 1,587 in 2011 to 1,137 in 2021.

During the same period, the number of students enrolled in seminaries decreased by 40 percent from 223 to 138, the statistical data showed.

Some parishes showed a lack of interest in running kindergarten facilities which further contributed to the closures along with the limited financial support given for aging facilities.

Professor Yurim Shin pointed out that the closure of Catholic early childhood education institutions is not an issue faced by the church alone and urged the dioceses to find new ways to continue the process.

"Each diocese should find a way to activate parental education and faith education, which have been [overseen] by the early childhood department of the Youth Bureau,” Shin said.

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