The high price of western freedoms;News;News amp; Opinion

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Economic hardship following the fall of the Berlin Wall has blighted millions of children's education. Diane Spencer reports on United Nations findings.

THE disintegration of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc following the fall of the Berlin Wall has had a devastating effect on the education of millions of children.

This is the conclusion of a United Nations children's fund report, After the Fall, published by UNICEF to mark the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the wall.

It shows a drop in educational spending in eight out of the 15 countries where figures were available between 1990 and 1996.

The collapse and fragmentation of the Soviet Union saw the creation of 27 new states in eastern Europe and central Asia: many of them are now in a perilous economic position.

Spending fell by one third in Russia and by three-quarters or more in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Many children are receiving a worse education than their parents did.

Enrolment and attendance have fallen. At least one out of seven children of primary or lower secondary age is out of school in Georgia, Latvia, and Uzbekistan.

In Russia, around 5 per cent of primary pupils - 100,000 - in each grade are non-attenders.

"Our parents have not received their salaries or child allowances for half a year. Our teachers are on strike. We are not receiving a full education," says a seventh grade pupil in Karelia, Russia.

Hard-pressed families are increasingly forced to pay for text books or extra lessons to get their children into a better school. One parent in Armenia told a World Bank team: "I spend 90 per cent of my wages on food: how can I buy textbooks?"

Clothing and shoes are no longer subsidised. In one region of Kyrgyzstan in 1994 two-thirds of school-age children failed to go to school because they didn't have warm clothes. Schools are also struggling to maintain building, equipment and sanitation.

The report said the impact of war in around one-third of the 27 countries had severely disrupted education, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the west, to Tajikistan, in the east, with schools often targets of violence.

Many children had seen their loved ones killed, communities uprooted and homes obliterated.Some had fought alongside adults in Chechnya and in former Yugoslavia. The conflicts have "violated the most fundamental rights of children". The fighting in Tajikistan created 55,000 orphans, and two million of the six to eight million refugees in the region are children.

"Poverty diseases" such as diphtheria and tuberculosis have reappeared and the number of small children placed in institutions has risen by 45 per cent in Romania, Russia and Latvia and by 75 per cent in Estonia.

Ethnic-minority children and families in rural areas have often suffered the worst. Even in a comparatively wealthy country like Hungary, tests measuring achievement revealed falling scores for pupils in villages while those in cities improved.

"While there are signs of economic recovery, the gross domestic product of most countries in the region remains far smaller than in 1989, it is being shared less equally and, what is worse, the slice of the cake for children is in danger of getting smaller," notes the report.

But UNICEF also highlights some positive aspects of the transition, saying: "It would be wrong to create a picture of overall regional gloom. New freedoms, coupled with the growth of grassroots activism and civil society, allow the discussion of issues once stifled."

Frank Sudlow, education consultant for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development said: "Education must be a primary concern of the governments of these new states. Look what happened in Zambia - because of the debt crisis the government cut back on education. Now we see this happening in eastern Europe because of the collapse of the national government. We have to say to these new governments in Azerbaijan and Armenia, 'Don't let that happen to you'

"The British Government can bring its expertise in curriculum development to bear and provide support and even training opportunities for teachers. We need to be able to persuade these governments that education is very important."

After the Fall, is available free from UNICEF UK, 55 Lincoln's Inn Fields,

London WC2A 3NB

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