Keep your beads, we're doing fine;Another Voice;Opinion;News and opinion

10th December 1999 at 00:00
THE TES seems to take perverse pleasure in portraying the newly-

independent states of Eastern Europe as being in a state of deep educational crisis. Last month, for example, you used out-of-date United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) statistics to paint a picture which leaves the reader with a very distorted image.

Not only is it increasingly irrelevant - in the era of a united Europe, the third way and the global village - to depict dichotomy between East and West but it is even less acceptable to promote the colonial view whereby the "enlightened" British could always grace the deprived natives with a few glass beads and words of superior wisdom.

Those UNICEF figures (from 1990-96) are ages away from the current situation in such fast-changing countries. They give the erroneous impression that children are being deprived of their educational rights, parents are having to buy their school books and pay for extra lessons to get them into better schools, rural schools are in decline, and governments do not value education.

And the answer, according to The TES gospel, is - why, of course - bring on the glass beads: British help with teacher training, curriculum development and other educational wisdom. Thanks, but no thanks.

Speaking as a Russian academic, I feel you have got it terribly wrong. Being blissfully unaware of the differences in culture, values and priorities that - surprise, surprise - exist in other countries, you use your own yardstick to measure another's territory, and come to deeply flawed and misleading conclusions.

So, in the interests of that other great British tradition - fair play - let's try to get things straight here.

Having to buy school books: well, sometimes you did and sometimes you didn't, both in Soviet Union times and now. But, it is far from being a sign of educational crisis. The books cost very little both then and now (part of government policy) but finding them was a real pain before, when they, like other consumer goods, were in short supply. It drove parents to desperation because they just could not buy books anywhere, not even a single colourless book per subject.

Quite unlike those times, it is a real pleasure for parents today to spend hours leafing through colourful and enjoyable school books, written by leading minds of the day. Such things were unthinkable, until recently.

The next sign of collapse, apparently, is having to pay for extra lessons. With education traditionally seen in Russia as a wonderful awakening, giving your child the best schooling has always been the top priority of any parent. And with schools finishing by lunchtime, you couldn't do better than take your child to a music, arts, or sports class (free or low-cost) in the afternoon.

All these opportunities are even better now, and parents are only too happy to find an exciting new book, school or talented teacher for their child, to make their experience of learning even more inspiring.

What has this long tradition got to do with what you narrow-mindedly call "western freedoms"?

It is true there are problems: teacher recruitment, the availability of school places, and the state of school buildings in depressed areas. But this would be true in any country undergoing major change in its social and economic development. On the whole school education is the best example of what can be achieved when the former limitations are lifted forever.

This freedom, along with the growing variety of schools (often funded privately by local enthusiasts), teaching methods, and examination options, has given pupils, teachers and parents long hoped-for choice - better than anything the UK has to offer.

The lifting of the Iron Curtain ended enforced isolation and gave our schools the option of joining multinational projects such as sitting the International Baccalaureate alongside the national one. Pupils in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union invariably score top results, which rather undermines your "education in crisis" message.

We all want to do the best for our kids. But we do it in our own way, in line with our values, traditions and lifestyles. So why not stop looking down on others because they do things differently, and instead learn from them, respecting and appreciating the differences? Who knows, but the funny ways next door may just be the ticket for some of your own problems.

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