For the past two years, three Scottish teachers have been providing some management know-how to their counterparts in a Russian city, in a scheme that could radically affect the education of thousands of children.
Since 1995, the Scots - ourselves and Stewart Jardine, a former headteacher and inspector for Strathclyde - have been working on a school management project with educational administrators and headteachers in the Krasnoselsky district of St Petersburg.
St Petersburg, the former Leningrad of the former Soviet Union, with a population of more than five million, is the fourth largest city in Europe. It is divided into 17 districts, of which Krasnoselsky, with a population of about 500,000, is but one.
The chairman of the education committee of St Petersburg, in partnership with the British Council, invited Krasnoselsky's director of education to explore with British colleagues new ways of managing schools - a bold initiative at a time of economic transition, but one which could have far-reaching effects on the education of children throughout Russia.
Schools in Krasnoselsky are part of vast housing schemes. Nine-storey concrete blocks of flats, reminiscent of some of the worst monstrosities of 1960s buildings programmes in the UK, surround a large central quadrangle whose centrepiece is the school, a two or three-storey building.
On the outside the school reflects the drab exterior of the flats. But inside it is a different matter. The classrooms have a homeliness that does credit to the teachers, who create a relaxed atmosphere with pot plants, pictures and carpeting.
Schools are also social centres, where meals are provided free to all pupils. The quality of food made on the premises is high, and for many pupils, it is an essential provision. Schools often provide medical facilities and can be the focus for birthdays and weddings.
Class teaching is the order of the day, and lessons can be stimulating. In one chemistry lesson, the teacher, with limited equipment, provided insight and understanding to the 15-year-old pupils, who seemed interested and motivated. Learning by a thousand worksheets has yet to arrive here - it is the quality of teaching that matters.
Management of schools is a curious mixture of centralised control and decentralised authority. Headteachers have freedom to appoint their own staff, a task becoming increasingly difficult given that salaries are insufficient to meet daily needs and compare badly with other, more mundane jobs in the private sector.
The basic curriculum is standard, approved by the district, but each school offers additional classes after hours. These lessons cover foreign languages, dancing, mathematics and other subjects for which parents are willing to pay. The money raised is used to supplement teachers' salaries.
Headteachers and staff display a self-help spirit that must be admired. Where in Scotland would you find a PE teacher painting the walls of the school gymnasium during the vacation?
Schools seek sponsorship, run lotteries, sell photocopying facilities, provide computer classes for adults, rent rooms and even run guided tours of the city for visitors. Their entrepreneurial spirit puts to shame the dependency culture of schools in the capitalist West.
In terms of expertise, we perhaps had as much to learn as we had to give. We met for the first time as a full project team in November 1995 - the district education officer for Krasnoselsky, a district accountant, headteachers (some of whom acted as translators) and the three UK staff. A former deputy headteacher of a school in England who was resident in St Petersburg, Jo Cheadle, acted as local British consultant.
The first, three-day meeting was held in Znamenka, a decaying winter palace some miles from St Petersburg. Intense discussion through the interpreters, punctuated by short excursions to the icy shores of the Gulf of Finland, and even a midnight stroll in snow through derelict stables, built respect and friendship which have sustained the project through its more formal stages.
We agreed to help the Krasnoselsky schools in three ways - by developing a headteacher's support manual, clarifying the financial decision-making relationship between district and schools; producing computer software to help track schools' income and expenditure; and introducing a model of school development planning. Some of these ideas were tried out last year in pilot schools.
In June 1996 a small group of Russians visited Scotland to learn how devolved school management had been implemented in the context of reforms that have affected education as a whole and the relationship between government, district and schools in particular. Most striking to Russian eyes was the contribution of information technology to our school management, and the way in which it has provided the necessary information and mechanisms for districts to monitor and control school expenditure.
The headteacher's support manual is in its final draft and will provide headteachers with the first-ever compilation of documents to help them perform their tasks in a consistent and informed manner. Computer software has been developed to enable them to monitor their expenditure and gain access to important management information. This will form an integral part of school development planning which now involves more teachers and parents in charting the future of their school in the uncertain waters of the new Russia.
Last September we went back to St Petersburg to plan training for schools about to enter the project. In November, the local school managers were trained by the Russians.
This project has achieved, in a short time and with limited resources, a shift in thinking about how school education is managed, in a way that is consistent with the aims and values of the Russian education system. The Krasnoselsky project has attracted considerable interest in other parts of the city, and, in a highly centralised and standardised system, may well have nationwide implications.
Mike Quickfall is head of science, technology, mathematics and computing at Moray House; Jim Wight is senior lecturer in educational management