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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 February, 2004, 00:11 GMT
Any lessons from Russia?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent, in Moscow

Mike Baker graphic

School inspectors in England have warned that too much focus on basic maths and English skills is destroying any chance of a "rich and fulfilling curriculum".

Russians, it seems, have the same fears.

Schools there achieve great success in literacy and numeracy. The literacy rate for the whole adult population is around 95%.

This is partly due to the inheritance of the Soviet education system which was strong on the "Three Rs". However, it was not so good at encouraging creativity or thinking skills.

Creative thinking

That is changing now: alongside the social and economic reforms of the "new Russia", there is big push to reform the school curriculum and teaching styles.

Rote learning is on its way out and problem-solving and creative thinking are on the way in.

Vladimir Filippov
Vladimir Filippov wants to encourage creativity

In his Moscow office, the Russian Minister of Education, Vladimir Filippov, told me "there was too much rote learning in the past and there still is".

Mr Filippov is trying to push through widespread school reforms, many of which are meeting resistance from teachers.

He is reducing the amount of factual detail students need to know to pass frequent tests.

Mr Filippov said: "It is not necessary to know all the facts. We try to give them the chance to think and to be creative."

In primary school, the government plans to do away with the formal requirements to get "marks" in factual tests in music, sport and design.

Showcase

In an education system with 63,000 schools - two-thirds of them in rural areas very remote from Moscow - reform is not easy.

However, like Russian society, schools are changing. One of the showcases is School 1674 (all Russian schools are known by numbers not names) in the Krylatskoye suburb of Moscow.

It is a state-run nursery and primary school for 180 children aged three to 10. It is an experimental school which has taken advantage of new freedoms to innovate.

The school is open from 7 am until 6 pm with pupils able to stay the whole time if their parents wish. There is a strong emphasis on children's health: even the youngest have up to three hours a day of physical activity, either walking or skiing in the nearby woods. There are weekly sports competitions.

Girl writing
Young pupils are very advanced at languages

Much of the teaching is based on what the head teacher, Lyudmila Suprunova, describes as "learning through play".

However, although the school is well-equipped, there were far fewer wall displays of children's work than in most English schools and the atmosphere was more ordered and formal. Children sat in rows and stood up when visitors entered the classroom.

Although School 1674 is moving towards a more informal, creative approach, it still has formal lessons which are currently unimaginable in England. For example, some of the children here have been learning a foreign language - English - since the age of three.

In the infant school, children learn it through poems, songs and games; but by the junior school, from age six, they learn formal grammar.

In the third-grade English class Natalya Ivankova was teaching nine year olds the "future indefinite tense of the future simple".

She told me she hoped her pupils had already mastered the "present simple, the present continuous, and the past indefinite tenses, as well as knowing their regular and irregular verbs, and adjectives and adverbs".

Parents

I doubt if many English nine year olds would know this amount of grammar in their own language, never mind a foreign one.

While School 1674 is exceptional, the concept of learning through play - still new in Russia - is spreading elsewhere and parents are increasingly willing to play their part.

The Little Genius shop and playgroup in a suburban shopping mall is a new concept.

High-school students
High-school students do not want to become teachers because of the poor pay

As well as selling developmental games, it runs classes for children aged between three and nine.

Parents pay about 2 an hour for their children to attend either before or after school, or at weekends or holidays.

This combination of a market-related business and new educational methods was the idea of Albina Yermakova, a former actress who now runs three Little Genius stores in Moscow.

While prices are cheap by British standards, 2 an hour is expensive compared to the average Moscow teacher's salary of between 100 to 200 a month.

President Putin's Russia appears to be as focused on educational reform as Tony Blair's Britain: no part of the educational system is being left untouched, from primary school to university.

Recruitment problems

But while Russian government reforms are aimed at developing greater creativity and thinking skills, the reforms in England have been pushing for greater emphasis on the basics.

However, one problem both countries face is a difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers. Whereas in England teachers are often forced out by problems of pupil discipline, in Russia the root cause is pay.

In Moscow, in particular, teachers of English, IT and PE have left in droves to work in foreign-language schools, business and in health clubs.

The Moscow city authorities pay a premium of up to 80% above the national pay scale. But this is still not enough. Many teachers only survive by moonlighting in other jobs, especially private tuition.

Unhappy teachers

From 1 January next year, though, the federal government plans a major overhaul of teachers' pay and conditions. In return for a 50% pay rise, Mr Filippov is proposing to introduce a standard 36-hour week.

This might appear attractive at first, but Russian teachers are not happy.

At present they are not required to be at school all week, but only to teach a certain number of classroom hours, typically 12, 18 or 24. The rest of the time they are free to earn money privately outside school, although they do have to spend time on preparation and marking.

Svetlana Vysotina has taught for 20 years and is head of English at State Secondary School 1253. She earns about 200 a month, which she supplements by providing private English lessons.

She loves her job but is not keen on the minister's proposals.

"I am very satisfied now, as I have the freedom to go out of school", she said, "but I would not like to be required to be in school for a fixed 36 hours."

Little Genius shop in Moscow
Little Genius shops are springing up around Moscow

The other big reform planned by Mr Filippov has parallels with the Tomlinson Review of the curriculum in England, due to be published shortly.

But while Mr Tomlinson wants to encourage students to study a wider range of subjects, the Russian plans are for the opposite: greater specialism for 16 to 18 year olds.

The Russian secondary-school curriculum is very broad. In the last year of compulsory schooling, most 15 to 16 year olds study 12 compulsory subjects.

Specialising

This breadth is not reduced for those who stay on into high school - the equivalent of Sixth Form. At School 1253 they take no fewer than 14 subjects, making England's 4 subjects at AS-level look very narrow indeed.

However, for the past two years Russian schools have been trialling a new approach which involves specialising in just four or five subjects, with study in the remaining subjects required at only a "basic" level.

In this respect, it is much closer to a French-style baccalaureate.

At School 1253 they recently introduced three "streams" in high school, with students choosing to specialise in economics, medical studies or languages.

The Russian school system is certainly changing. Mr Filppov is understood to be close to Putin, who looks certain to be re-elected next month.

So the reforms will be pushed through.

The biggest threat to their success remains the problems of teachers' pay and recruitment.

Male teachers are fast becoming an extinct species in Moscow. At School 1253 there are just three men out of a teaching staff of 62.

Mirror-image

Three others left teaching recently because they could not afford to support their families.

When I asked a class of 17 year olds if any of them planned to become teachers, not a single one raised their hand. The "new Russians" in Moscow want careers in business or computing.

From a British perspective, the strengths of the Russian school system are clear: high levels of numeracy and literacy, impressive foreign-language skills, very few discipline problems and a culture that values education.

There are serious problems, though: school funding, teacher shortages, a curriculum that is heavily focused on facts and rote learning, rather than skills and creativity.

A report by the education watchdog Ofsted this week highlighted the risks in England of focusing so much on the basics that the broader curriculum suffers.

Russia's challenge is the mirror-image: how to develop creativity and choice in the curriculum without losing the firm foundations in grammar, maths and foreign languages.


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.




SEE ALSO:
Ofsted 'two-speed lessons' alarm
04 Feb 04  |  Education
Tea while you vote in Moscow
07 Dec 03  |  Europe


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