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To Russia with love

Innovative joint ventures between British education authorities and Russian schools are helping both countries to learn, writes Michael Barber

On the banks of the massive river Yenisei, which flows thousands of miles north into the Arctic Ocean, stands the great Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.

Central to its prospects in the post-communist era is its school system.

The teachers at Universe, one of its most innovative schools, are familiar with education reform in the UK. Not only that: in partnership with Dudley education authority, they have been sharing best practice in tackling addictive behaviour among young people.

Meanwhile, in the western Siberian city of Omsk, a strategic stop on the Trans-Siberian railway, they are designing and implementing a city-wide pattern of specialist (or "profiled") schools. Each school will make a distinct curriculum contribution and also contribute to city-wide goals.

(Remarkably, the inspiration for this policy was a visit to south Gloucestershire.) On the Volga, which flows south to the Caspian Sea, the city of Yaroslavl has collaborated with Kirklees to examine how local authorities can best make an impact.

Ask the Russian participants in the 20 or so partnerships of this kind why they are enthusiastic and they always give the same answer: these partnerships are genuine, based on mutual learning rather than on a "we know best" concept. Ask the British participants and they'll tell you the same. Russian schools provide endless opportunities for the British to learn. The best primary-level teaching of languages I've ever seen was in St Petersburg. Meanwhile, maths teaching is generally of a very high standard. The recently published results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that while primary maths in England is the fastest improving in the world, it has still not quite caught up with Russia.

These results reflect the fact that, in spite of the hardships (which in the 1990s often meant going without pay for many months), Russian teachers have a strong appreciation of pedagogy and high expectations of children.

They are also impressively committed to their own development. Two teachers from rural northern Siberia were so keen to attend professional development in their local centre - several hundred miles away - that when all flights were cancelled, they drove there on the ice of the river Yenisei, even though the ice was beginning to crack.

These partnerships across Russia and the UK are fostered by the excellent British Council in Moscow with the support of the British embassy. Over the past five years, I've had the privilege of working with this network. We examine developments in the most innovative regions of Russia, interpret them in the light of what we know about the principles of education reform and then discuss the implications with the Russian education minister, Andrei Fursenko.

The aim is to enable the Russian government to refine its national reform agenda. For example, legislation has made its way through the Duma (the Russian parliament) establishing school governing bodies on the British model, a key reform in building civic society after communism. A national school-leaving exam has been introduced, a key step in bringing greater equity and less corruption to university entrance.

On Monday, we will launch a scheme with the Russian government to promote vocational education, English-language teaching and education for migrant children in the troubled North Caucasus. This area borders Chechnya and was the scene of the appalling atrocity at Beslan in September. It is an area of ethnic and religious tension combined with desperate poverty and youth unemployment of over 25 per cent.

Our goal will be to invest more thanpound;1 million in building the kind of partnerships already established elsewhere in Russia, to help to solve the region's education problems. We will work alongside the World Bank to understand these problems and with the authorities in the region to design tailored solutions. A key innovation will be to connect educators in the region not just to a British partner but to one of our existing partners in Russia. This will ensure long-term sustainability and reinforce the partnership concept.

The British relationship with Russian educators is a classic example of developing relationships between citizens as well as governments. The goal is a better-educated population in both countries and a growing recognition that the future depends on international understanding and global interdependence.

Michael Barber is the Prime Minister's chief adviser on delivery and chairs the steering group of the North Caucasus Education Initiative. Schools interested in more information on partnerships between British and Russian educators should contact the British Council at Friday magazine, Mike Kent, 4

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