On our second day in St Petersburg, we visit the Constantin Grot School, Russia’s oldest school for the visually impaired. We have high hopes that our visit will offer valuable insight into Russian education for blind children.
After a slightly wobbly start when two unnamed members of our group oversleep, followed by more shenanigans on the metro, we make it to our destination just in time. We are met there by two Grot School English teachers, who both happen to be named Olga.
Set in neatly-tended grounds, the school is a square complex of four-storey buildings. It has a plain concrete facade but is beautifully decorated inside, with polished wooden flooring and comfy sofas.
318 pupils from 1st to 12th grade (equivalent to the year groups of the UK system), currently attend the school. Many of the students, who come from all over Russia, have disabilities besides visual impairments: some are also deaf and mute, and some have special learning needs.
Classes mix boys and girls, but braille and non-braille pupils are taught separately, as they learn at different speeds.
70 per cent of Grot School students go on to university. Their education is fully funded by the state.
The school already has links with other countries, including the USA, Germany, Finland and Poland ─ and they seem keen to add the WESC Foundation to this list.
Already impressed, we are taken to meet Alexey Mukhin, Director of Grot School. This is beginning to feel more like a business conference than a school visit, but our boys rise to the occasion, introducing themselves and explaining their own lives and studies at WESC. In return, Alexey tells us that his school enjoys a close relationship with the Hermitage State Museum and is involved in local music.
Grot School is also helping to educate the Russian public on visual impairment by working closely with the city council and the media.
Most pupils are on study leave, preparing for upcoming exams, but we do have the chance to meet some of the school’s talented music students, who wow us with a performance.
As if this wasn’t enough, the school minibus has been arranged to take us around the city for the rest of the afternoon. Free from the stress of the metro, history teacher Julian takes centre stage and leads us around several key sites from the October Revolution, including Finland Station, the Smolnyy Convent, the House of the Arts, and the Tauride Palace.
Alongside Julian's history lessons, Olga gives us some personal insights. For instance, she explains how during a 900-day siege in the Second World, her grandmother was so desperately hungry that she ate her own shoes.
Grot School's generous welcome knocked us off our feet. How can we match all this tomorrow?
Well, some of us have half an eye on the Champions League final and we’ve been doing some serious research on the nearest sports bars…
Until then: poka!