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Analysis & Opinion
06.09.10 The Day Of Knowledge
By Svetlana Kononova

September 1 has been celebrated as Knowledge Day ever since the Soviet times. The school year traditionally starts in Russia on this day, when 50,000 schools across the country open their doors to millions of pupils. About 200,000 first-graders who started their education last Wednesday will be taught to new standards that entail less project work and fewer creative classes. But can educational reforms really solve Russia’s long-standing problems of primary and secondary school education?

Bad news for parents: school expenses have risen significantly over the past several years. A recent poll conducted by the All Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) found that on average, parents spent 11,335 rubles ($369) per child on the back-to-school kit, including uniform, books and backpack. In 2005 they spent half that amount. The survey does not take in account additional expenses, which are very common in many schools – in some cases parents have to pay for the classrooms’ maintenance, furnishing, equipment, etc. Moreover, parents are often forced to hire private tutors and pay for extra lessons to compensate for the poor quality of free education.

But the greatest fear for parents is that the era of free primary and secondary education in Russia might be over. In April of 2010 the State Duma approved a bill that proposed to abolish the obligatory full government funding of state schools. According to the draft law, pupils would receive only a limited number of free lessons, but the list and number of these lessons still hasn’t been approved. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that primary and secondary education will remain free, but educational reforms are still the subject of a heated debate.

“When this bill was signed by the president in May of 2010, civil society and some political parties started protesting against the reform. By this time, new educational standards for secondary schools and the number of free classes were not clear. Probably, without such a strong public response, a very limited number of free classes might have been approved. But civil society has rebelled against the draft and has changed the plans of the reform’s proponents,” said Galina Shneyder, the leader of a movement called Moscow Parents.

But although the reform has been put on the backburner, state spending on education seems to be decreasing, members of the movement believe. “The main goal of the educational reform is the reduction of state funding. While the idea of paid tutorials has been faulted, another way to cut government expenses on education was found. Now some schools with a small number of pupils are being closed under the pretext of demographic problems. As a result, children are forced to change schools and study in overcrowded classrooms. And there are other methods, too. For example, some state schools are cutting their staff. Recently, the parents of pupils who study in one school in Moscow called us for help because a teacher of foreign languages was fired due to staff cuts,” Shneyder said.

Primary and secondary school education is still based on old Soviet tradition, and has both strong and weak points. “One of the greatest advantages of the traditional education system are its selfless teachers and headmasters who are ready to defend the interests of school,” Shneyder said. “But generally the school education in Russia should be improved. Schools need more high-qualified staff, a more friendly approach to children, modern equipment, more interesting methods of teaching. And of course, the number of pupils in a class should be no more than 15. In reality, we see overcrowded classes, reductions in personnel and closures of some schools.”

While the activists of Moscow Parents prepare for their next protest on September 25, the Russian blogosphere is discussing the “tough decision”’ made by Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh to send his son to study in the UK. “Unfortunately, there aren’t any full-rate boarding schools in Russia (except the institutions for vulnerable children), which provide complex development and education for the child, where the child can be the focus of attention day and night,” wrote the governor in his blog.

Maybe the decision to send his child to study abroad was truly “tough” for Belykh, but it seems very typical. Many high-ranking Russian officials, politicians and businessmen choose foreign boarding schools for their children. “Education gained in the EU countries and the United States, especially school education, is a way for Russian students to integrate in the Western society, where individualism and independence are highly valued. This prepares them for future study at university, work and life abroad,” said Danil Smirnov, the head of the independent educational project – a Web site providing information about study opportunities in different countries.
“Western education systems focus on the personal development of each student, self-reliance and initiative. But students are responsible for their own personal growth. Education means not only new knowledge and information, but character development as well. Even if the content of school curricula in Russia matches educational programs in Western schools, studying in Western countries gives much more advantages for the development of a strong and well-rounded personality. That’s probably why the Russian political and business elites prefer to send their children to study abroad,” Smirnov said. “Moreover, Western countries are more comfortable and safer than Russia. Youngsters who study abroad can travel a lot, and visit concerts, theatres and museums cheaply due to special programs and discounts.”

Although the traditional school education system in Russia has many backers, it might seem outdated in the context of globalization. The results of the international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test showed than Russian pupils lag behind their peers from developed countries. Their main problem is with solving unusual creative tasks. The survey found that the most difficult tasks for Russian teenagers were extracting information from charts for solving a practical task, deciphering trends based on facts, and choosing one from several available choices. Most pupils could solve equations, but did not understand figures published in a newspaper and could not calculate the distance on a map.

The traditional post-Soviet education system gives children a lot of knowledge and information, but does not explain how to use this knowledge in everyday life, experts say.

Additionally, the survey found that Russian pupils are much more nervous when assigned tasks in school and worry more about grades than children from other countries.
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