On the edge in a decentralised world

Jennifer Louis

Education in Russia is falling between two stools. The country's struggling market economy is not helping schools and state funding is minimal.

Late last month Eugeni Tkachenko, the education minister, announced that 1996 should see education freed from centralised control with freedom of choice for teachers and schools as to their work methods, and for pupils regarding their choice of subjects, further study and career.

However, the minister has more immediate problems. He says spending on education has been halved since 1992. Teachers' pay also suffered with the average national wage dropping below subsistence level.

The start of this term brought the threat of strikes, forcing the state to act. Teachers' pay has now been increased by 54 per cent, bringing it up to minimum wage level (the equivalent of Pounds 30 a month). This should help to keep the teachers in the schools but many have already left.

Replacements are still arriving in Russia from the independent republics, and in Chechnya pensioners are being encouraged to go back to work.

The younger teachers are the first to go, all too often the men. The workforce is getting older and is increasingly dominated by women. Even worse, however, is the overall shortage of staff - 13,500 are needed in Russia as a whole. St Petersburg lacks 1,900 and Moscow more than 1,000, while the regions of Sakhalin, Omsk, Buryat and Tuva are also badly hit.

The subjects suffering most from lack of teachers are foreign languages with 6,000 positions vacant. These staff, particularly teachers of English, have left their state schools for the higher salaries offered by private language schools or by businesses that run their own courses. To help fill this gap, 900 teachers took a special course in foreign-language teaching in the summer.

Although teachers are leaving, the numbers of children wanting to stay on in the senior classes is rising with 56 per cent now keen to continue studying after Class 9.

In spite of the economic difficulties, the prestige of a good education remains high. A poll carried out in July found that 40 per cent of young people regard higher education as a priority.

School funding is only one tenth of what is required, and so inadequate that, salaries apart, there is a desperate shortage of cash for fuel. Last year the lighting and heating was temporarily turned off in many schools because bills had not been paid. Schools in the far north are in the worst position, mainly because of their high fuel costs, and may have to be closed during the winter.

Textbooks are a recurrent problem with the state curriculum in flux. Now the ministry of finance has said that supplying schoolbooks is to be a local concern, and should not depend upon government subsidy. A number of banks and commercial enterprises have come forward to help cover the cost by sponsorship.

Prosvesheniye (Enlightenment) Publishing House no longer has a monopoly of schoolbooks - seven other establishments share the work. According to Eugeni Tkachenko 60 per cent of the required number of textbooks were available by September 1, the start of the school year and 3.5 million books are coming out each week. The minister says production will be complete by October or November.

Twelve regions are in particular difficulties, and not only with books. Ethnic conflicts have forced some schools to close leaving others in nearby peaceful areas unable to cope with the influx of large numbers of child refugees.

Decentralisation has also given the different regions the right to add a subject of particular local importance. Moscow schools have now to include the history of their city, and new in Rostov-on-Don this September is the first special school for Don Cossacks. Their curriculum, besides the usual subjects, includes the music and ethnography of the Don Cossacks, riding and hand-to-hand fighting.

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