CHILDREN in many former communist bloc countries are paying a heavy price for the economic upheaval caused by market reforms, according to a United Nations report.
In the states of the former Soviet Union in particular there has been a "substantial erosion" of education.
The study by UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund, covering 27 countries, was carried out by a team of researchers at the International Child Development Centre in Florence. It drew on data from every statistical office in the region and external consultants.
John Micklewright, leader of the research team, said: "Under Communism they were producing levels of enrolment and achievement beyond a lot of countries at the same level of economic development. But countries like the central Asian republics are now seeing a decline in enrolment at every level."
A major cause is the drastic fall in national wealth. Gross domestic product has fallen by about 40 to 50 per cent in much of the former Soviet Union since 1989 and each state spends a smaller share of its GDP on basic services like education.
The report, Education for All?, says that families' bill for educating children has risen sharply. Some countries have introduced fees for upper secondary schools. Parents frequently have to pay for textbooks and reports abound of parents paying teachers for extra lessons or resorting to bribery to secure good exam marks.
As public spending has plummeted - by 75 per cent in Bulgaria - teacher morale and pay has dropped and many buildings desperately need repairing. Heating schools in winter is a serious problem in countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and FYR Macedonia.
In the countries of the former Commonwealth of Independent States 30,000 pre-schools were closed between 1991 and 1995, many of them linked to state enterprises that have disappeared. Drop-out rates have risen, too, as costs have increased and quality has fallen.
School meals and health checks have fallen. In Georgia 670,000 schoolchildren received a health check in 1989 but only 250,000 in 1996.
War and ethnic tension have also severely disrupted the schooling of thousands of children in states such as Boznia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Withdrawal of autonomy for the province of Kosovo in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia led to 300,000 Albanian children being taken out of state education.
Mr Micklewright said investment and reform were needed: "In primaries and secondaries they need more flexible, stimulating teaching methods. They are stuffing children with facts - which is why many countries still score well in TIMSS (international comparative maths and science studies) - but in tests of functional literacy and the ability to apply knowledge they don't score anywhere near as well."
However, in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland maths scores have risen and in Slovenia the exam system has been revamped.
But the report leaves an image of the plight of children in the poorer states, such as one in the former Soviet Union visited by consultants for the study. They were told that the history curriculum had been revised. But the only evidence was that white paper had been stuck over the pictures of leaders such as Lenin and Stalin in textbooks.