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Glasnost melts glacial hardness

For the pupils' council, annual elections are serious business. Candidates force their way through the lunchtime crowds thrusting campaign leaflets into eager hands. The school walls are papered with bright election posters in the all-consuming drive to win more votes.

"This is real glasnost," says headteacher Tamara Vince, who has introduced the changes. "Before, I would just say 'I am the teacher and what I say goes'. Now the children are taking responsibility for their lives."

This is School Number 2 in Nazivaevsk in western Siberia, where the warm breath of democracy is melting the hard authoritarianism of the past. The pupils' council keeps an eye on lateness, behaviour and tidiness, and every week holds a school inspection. The class which has performed best is rewarded with sweets. The worst suffers the humiliation of being reprimanded by its peers.

Pupils at School Number 2 are not afraid to challenge the staff. Often the teacher is supposed to be no more than a facilitator, with the children working together in lively groups to find their own solutions to problems.

"This approach was unheard of just a few years ago," says Alexander Lokhansky, a young history teacher who joined the school in 1987. At his previous school, to deviate one iota from the approved textbook was to incur the wrath of the authorities.

The timetable would no doubt raise a few eyebrows among Soviet educationists. Gone are Communist ideology and atheism, in come sex education and civics. There are even classroom debates on morality and religion. Decentralisation of the Russian education system means that each school is free to experiment with new forms of teaching and management. Some complain that standards have fallen as a result, with Nationalists and Communists calling for a return to Soviet-style schooling during last year's elections which saw the Communists make substantial gains. But Nazivaevsk School Number 2 has hit upon a liberal system which has led to better-behaved children who actually enjoy coming to school. Their parents, too, have elections and their own legislative body.

But the new generation of Russian schools is experiencing problems its predecessor never had to face. Lack of money is the main evil, with textbooks in short supply. School Number 2 has been waiting for years for a desperately-needed new building. In the meantime, the school day has to be divided. Pupils attend from 8am to 12.40pm or 1.40pm to 6.20pm - and staff have to cover both shifts.

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