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Ice cream profits lick the system

Like most children in the Ukraine, the 32 pupils at the Mariya Centre private school enjoy eating ice cream. What they may not realise is that the exclusive education they enjoy is currently being subsidised by the Ice Company's delicious vanilla and strawberry cornets.

When Alexander Iichuk, a former military pilot and Afghanistan veteran who latterly flew the transport planes which ferried Gorbachev's bulletproof Zil limousines around the world, took early retirement he decided to take advantage of the new laws allowing private businesses.

Making ice cream was only one of many ideas and projects, but to date the most successful. During the long hot summers the inhabitants of the provincial town of Melitopol flock to the numerous outlets and franchises, and profits are ploughed back into the Ice Company - except those which are earmarked for Iichuk's wife's school.

While Alex was flying his transport aeroplane around the world, his wife Svetlana, a qualified teacher, had started to educate their two children at home. Her experience working in a state school had convinced her that she wanted something different for her own children, Mariya, now five, and Valentine, 12.

In 1992, when the privatisation committee of the local council held a meeting to consult the population of Melitopol on the privatisation of the shops, restaurants, factories and farms of the area, Svetlana put forward a plan to open a private school on the site of a redundant and partly derelict state kindergarten near the town centre. Opposition was intense but eventually Svetlana was given the chance, as many thought, to fail.

However, three years on, the school not only still exists but is beginning to thrive. The 32 pupils evidently enjoy their education in the two refurbished nursery blocks. The fees are high, three times the average monthly income in Ukraine, but the deal includes transport to and from school, all books and materials, class sizes of six, individual tuition in some subjects, on-site medical attention, four meals a day - and security guards.

The school day is long and the curriculum is demanding, but some of the children are undoubtedly gifted and certainly capable of meeting their parents' aspirations for them to complete their education at university level in the West.

The Iichuks have now completed the outright purchase of the site with its four teaching blocks and the Ice Company is about to move into a reconstructed office opposite the old Communist party headquarters where it will open a business centre to assist other aspiring entrepreneurs. The school itself will not break even until it has 60 pupils and, with a final capacity of 100, will never be a big money-spinner.

Official recognition has now come formally through a licence to operate as a business, proudly framed on Svetlana's office wall, and more informally by a friendly visit to the school from the local director of education.

The Mariya Center wants to make contact with UKschools for pupils and staff to correspond and for eventual exchange visits. Schools wishing to establish links should write to Jim Langley, 36 Botanical Road, Sheffield S11 8RP.

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