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Escape from beatings to a private haven

Olga Zenkina still shudders at the time she spent at one of Moscow's rougher state schools.

The bright 12-year-old, whose conversational English is relaxed and confident, put up with it for only a month before her parents transferred her to a private, charitable-status school a short walk from the statue of Lenin which still dominates Leninsky Prospect near the entrance to Gorky Park.

"The teachers had no respect for us, they just told you what to do and would even hurt and beat you. If you didn't do your homework, one teacher would beat you on the spine with a stick."

Things are different at Pirogovskaya School. It which opened six years ago in a rambling old red-brick building on the banks of the Moscow river and has a strongly Christian ethos. It adopts a conservative approach to lesson content. Many textbooks are old Soviet books - and thorough learning of basics but without the Marxist-Leninist ideology, is stressed.

But if all that sounds rather rigid, Pirogovskaya, like so much else in Russian education, surprises with its paradoxical atmosphere. The school's director, Michail Vasilyevich Smola, a classically-trained cellist with a penchant for jazz, believes in applying the essentials of Christianity: respect and value for the potential of each student and member of staff within the 160 pupils aged five to 15 at the school.

"We don't teach particular religious classes here because it's against human rights. We have Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish students, along with non-believers," he said.

The school, which has been given use of the building by its local authority, charges fees based on ability to pay and the numbers of children a family has at the school. Fees are typically no more than twice the official minimum monthly wage of 20,000 roubles (Pounds 4). Many children attend free of charge, and the school, which was set up with the help of a former Gorbachev deputy education minister and a radical Russian Orthodox priest, Father Alexander Meyn, is one of the few private schools in Russia to be officially licensed and accredited.

Educational reforms in 1992 legalised private schools, and provided for their funding along the same lines as state schools. The policy has been the matter of fierce debate ever since, and a draft Bill which would require private schools to own their property could put many out of business.

Despite a rapid growth in private education in Russia in recent years, the phenomenon remains largely urban, nearly half, 170, are in Moscow. It is also a tiny sector - less than 1 per cent of the massive nation's 68,000 state schools. Fees for the purely privately-funded, property-owning schools be up to Pounds 350 a month, a small fortune, when compared with state school teacher's salaries which rarely top Pounds 40 a month.

At Pirogovskaya School, parents are much in evidence where fluctuating finance means everyone mucks in to help out, including the general science teacher who has painstakingly made his own maps for geography lessons. The atmosphere is one of disciplined study laced with the carefree attitude of children who are relaxed enough to know that respect freely given is better than that demanded.

Natasha Andrushina, 33, who has three children aged eight to 13 at the school - she pays "affordable" fees for only one - would not send them anywhere else.

"For my children, this is the best sort of education," she said.

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