THE RUSSIAN government is creating an education timebomb by failing to pay teachers proper salaries and repair crumbling schools, a former education minister said this week.
Elena Lenskaya, head of international relations at the ministry of education from 1990 until 1996, said that last month's wave of teachers' protests were a symptom of growing frustrationover chronic neglect and underfunding.
Dr Lenskaya, now assistant director of English language teaching and education at the British Council in Moscow, said Russia's stock market crisis, currency woes and economic panic meant little to teachers in thousands of schools across the country who had been living on or near the poverty line for years.
"A lot of the best teachers who have had the opportunity to leave the system, especially those in the big cities where there are other opportunities, have already done so," she said. "School buildings that were deteriorating 10 years ago are getting to a position where they will be beyond repair."
The only reason standards in Russian schools had not started slipping, Dr Lenskaya argued, was the dedication and professionalism of those teachers who refused to leave, despite average salaries of less than pound;60 a month and frequent delays in payment.
"Teachers continue to be respected in Russia and many stay in the job and retain their morale because of the status they enjoy with pupils and parents. Teachers in Russia, where educational assessment is still not standardised, enjoy considerable influence and manage to retain their enthusiasm for the job," she said.
But this could not last for ever, especially in the very poorest regions, such as rural areas in Siberia, where teachers had not been paid for six months or more and survived by growing their own fruit and vegetables.
Dr Lenskaya's comments were echoed by others in Russian education. Professor Julia Tourchaninova, a writer and educationist, said the wave of protests that swept the country in May, bringing teachers and students out on the streets in Moscow, Volgograd, the Siberian city of Chita, and Kamchatka in the far east,were inspired less by acute economic issues than by the chronic strain of working in an undervalued, under funded system.
Professor Tourchaninova, who spent 20 years as a teacher and teacher-trainer, said that Russian teachers had been underpaid and undervalued for the past 30 years. "This is a much more seriousand longer-term story than merely that of the current financial crisis. For many years now bright young people have shunned teaching, or at best spent a few years in the classroom before moving on."
Irina Semenovna, a Moscow teacher for 33 years, confirmed that it was only professional pride and love of the job that kept her and colleagues at the chalkface. "I'm paid pound;60-pound;70 a month and can't afford luxuries like taking a summer holiday, but I am a lot better off than teachers in the rural regions."