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From Russia with love

Over there, they're underpaid and over-qualified. Now they're coming over here. Martin Whittaker reports on an influx of teachers from Moscow

Vitaly Bunos says he loves teaching and would not choose any other career.

But in Russia, salaries for state employees are very low - he earns less than 215 roubles (pound;60) a month, half of which goes on rent. So, as a last resort, he has decided to leave his wife and two children at home in Mogilev in Belarus while he seeks a teaching job in Britain. He believes he can save enough to send home. "I don't have any choice," he says. "I have to raise enough money for my family."

The 29-year-old physics teacher has travelled 300 miles to Moscow for interview with an overseas recruitment agency. He is among 18 hopefuls shortlisted from hundreds - and they would all move heaven and earth to teach in the United Kingdom. Most of them are well qualified - a number have PhDs.

Ruslan Asanov, a young technology teacher, spent 40 hours on a train from his home in Nalchik in the Caucasus mountains to get to this recruitment session. Another, Alehia Akhunova, from Moscow, is even prepared to leave her six-month-old son with her parents to work in Britain.

Jane Mercer, managing director of Mercer Shaw Matthews, the agency, says it began recruiting in Moscow because Russia produces good maths, science and ICT teachers. Whereas some nationalities might take a job in London for granted, or see it as a stepping stone on their grand tour of Europe, she says their Russian counterparts are dedicated and hard-working.

Visiting a Moscow school, it is difficult to comprehend why teachers would ever want to leave. Number 548 - schools have numbers instead of names - is a large state-run school in a southern suburb of the city spread over five sites with facilities and an atmosphere to rival many British independent schools. Classrooms are well-equipped with technology, high quality art work by the pupils adorns the corridors, there's a concert hall with a grand piano, and a ballet studio - even an indoor tropical winter garden as a teaching resource.

The pupil-teacher ratio is low - the school has 350 teachers to 1,700 children, ranging from 4 to 17. And the children are well-behaved and attentive in class. Although this school is of above average standard for Moscow, the atmosphere and culture of learning is common. So how will the Russians cope with daily "fire-fighting" in British schools?

Before interviewing, the agency runs a day-long training session to filter out those applicants who may be unsuitable. Some of those rejected had no hope because of their poor English. Others were asked to work on their language skills and perhaps try again.

The training is also designed to teach potential recruits about the UK education system - the key stages, the national curriculum and the complex qualifications. It is also to ensure that they understand the pressures of teaching in an inner-London school. "Obviously it's a different culture in England compared to Russia," Jane Mercer tells them. "Behaviour is the number one challenge. " The recruits spend a day with Ron Sergejev, deputy head of Sheredes school in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. He sets them team-building exercises and gives tips on how to respond under pressure. While one Russian teacher is telling the group about behaviour, Mr Sergejev suddenly adopts the role of a disruptive pupil, slumping into a chair, folding his arms and putting his feet on the table.

"Why should I listen to you?" he sneers aggressively, interrupting the bemused candidate over and over again. Finally, he gets up, sends his chair tumbling across the room and storms out. When he returns, members of the group look shocked. But, he tells them, this is the kind of behaviour they can expect if they come to work in a British secondary school. If they can teach in London, they can teach anywhere in the world.

Another myth the agency wants to dispel is that English salaries will leave them well off. Some think they can save hundreds of pounds each month to send home. They are warned about the high cost of living in London. "This is the reality of working in England," Mr Sergejev tells them. "Don't come over here thinking life is going to be easy and the streets will be paved with gold."

After the initial training and recruitment session, six teachers are selected to move on to the next stage and come to London for interviews.

But they still face huge hurdles.

Olga Romanova is a 41-year-old teacher who speaks fluent English, has 15 years experience and a PhD in chemistry. She has already been to London for three interviews but didn't get a job. Now she plans to try again.

"I am looking to develop," she says. "I like my work. I like children, I like teaching, but I need new knowledge."

But is she ready for the school environment in London?

"In my school I have no problem with homework. Nobody is late because they know I don't like this. I have such a reputation that new students already know about me from former students. I don't think it will be easy."

Why should British schools recruit teachers from Russia?

"The education system in Russia is far superior to ours," says Jane Mercer.

"Our school system can only benefit from bringing these people in and giving them the opportunity to experience our schools.

"The only barrier to lots more Russian teachers coming to work here is mastering the language. But I think as the years tick by, the average level of English spoken among the younger teachers is going to become higher because they now have an open door to the rest of the world."

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