End of the rote
Children at Moscow's School 1674 are learning English by playing a game.
"Tomorrow I will go shopping and buy a coat," says the first 10-year-old.
"Tomorrow I will go shopping and buy a coat and a hat," says the next. "A coat, a hat and a scarf," continues the third. To British primary teachers the idea of learning through games may be commonplace, but in Russia the change from a timetable dominated by rote-learning and facts to one that engages children and promotes creativity is just beginning.
School 1674, a showpiece state-funded nursery and primary in spacious, gleaming quarters in the Krylatskoye suburb of the city, is one of those leading the way. Ludmilla Suprunova, the headteacher, an elegant figure in a chic black dress that wouldn't be out of place at the opera, is taking advantage of the new freedom to innovate, and is establishing the school of her dreams. In this experimental school, she says, 180 children aged between three and 10 follow "individual programmes". She says:"We do our best to make life in school interesting for our children. All our lessons are based on games. Our school is a large family and we treat our children as individuals."
But this Russian version of progressive, child-centred learning still has a more traditional look than most British nurseries and primaries. The 10-year-olds playing their English game know that today's exercise is based on the "future simple tense". Natalia Ivakova, their teacher, explains that her pupils already have a sound grasp of grammar. They know the difference between irregular and regular verbs, the present and the present continuous, adverbs and adjectives. All began learning English at the age of four, at the same time as they started to learn to read in their own language.
They sit at desks in neat rows in a large, airy classroom where the walls are mostly bare. Even in the classes for younger pupils, brightly coloured toys and dolls sit tantalisingly out of reach in glass-fronted cupboards.
Questions from British journalists, invited by RIANovosti, the Russian information agency, about sand and water play draw blank looks from the immaculately-suited teachers.
All pupils may stay at school from 7am until 6pm, and though some parents choose a shorter day, most children are there for the full 11 hours and complete their homework in school. The idea, which goes back to Soviet times, is to fit in with parents' working hours, although parents who are not working are free to leave children there if they wish.
Ms Suprunova echoes the official Russian belief that health is a vital part of young children's education: every class has a nurse and the children exercise outside for three hours every day, even in Moscow's sub-zero temperatures. Mostly they just walk, apparently uncomplainingly, but there is also skiing in the woods in winter and sledging in the playground.
Porridge is served for breakfast, with plenty of vegetables and fruit juice, followed by home-baked pies for lunch.
But if the days of most Russian primary pupils are more formal and structured than those of their British counterparts, change is on the way.
Vladimir Filippov, Russia's education minister at the time of The TES's visit, charged with the task of improving 63,000 schools, almost 6,000 of them with fewer than 20 students, says: "There was too much rote learning in the past, and there still is." The adult literacy rate is 95 per cent so he is much less worried about the three Rs than British politicians and much more concerned about encouraging thinking skills and imagination.
"There has been a problem with creativity," he says.
Growing numbers of parents seem to agree. Five years ago, Albina Yermakova abandoned her acting career to set up Moscow's first Little Genius shop and playgroup. The shop, which sells educational toys and games and offers classes for three to nine-year-olds, was an instant success. Now there are three Little Genius shops in city shopping malls, where children come at weekends and after school to draw, paint, make models, sing and play.
Several thousand children a week attend classes in rooms above the shops.
Parents pay about pound;2 an hour for the sort of education that is just starting to make its way into Russian kindergartens. Mathematical toys are popular. Children learn about angles, for instance, with the help of metal posts and rubber bands.
Ms Yermakova says: "Education in Russia gets good results but we are on the edge of change. We want to make education more merry. In the past the first lessons in reading were at the age of six or seven. Now it is for three and four-year-olds and they get real satisfaction from it, but they are learning through stories and games, not through lessons."
At the Moscow city education department, Larisa Kurneshova, the first deputy chief and a former teacher, would like to move further towards more informal lessons, especially for the youngest pupils. "We are worried about the fact that in some pre-schools children are already having formal teaching. Children as young as four are having lessons in English. If you want them to learn a foreign language it should be through games."