Learning in a cold climate

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Sixteen years ago, Armenia's second city was laid to waste by an earthquake. The British government stepped in and built a school that still provides an island amid the devastation. Tony Halpin reports from Gyumri

The Lord Byron school stands in a city where 25,000 people were killed in a few dreadful seconds. The children who file down Margaret Thatcher Street into the school have no memory of the earthquake that turned Gyumri in northern Armenia into a mass grave 16 years ago.

But for their parents who survived, the "English school", as it is known locally, is the hope of a better future in a city of 170,000 people where 50 per cent of adults are jobless. Lord Byron was a gift from the British government after the 1988 disaster destroyed 31 out of 37 schools in the former Soviet republic's second city, then called Leninakan. Many of the victims were children, at school on a wintry December day when the quake struck in the middle of morning lessons. When Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, visited the ruined city in 1990 for the school's official opening, 200,000 people lined the streets to see her.

The building looks typical of many in towns across Britain, not least because it was designed in London. But the air of calm security seems incongruous in a district where many of the surrounding buildings stand unrepaired.

Grigor Harutyunyan, principal of Lord Byron, says the first intake of pupils included 34 orphans and 107 children who had lost a parent in the earthquake. Many arrived with physical disabilities. All were traumatised by the horrors they had witnessed.

"We had the last orphan graduate this year, a girl who is now at university in Yerevan (the capital). We still have a lot of single-parent families," says Mr Harutyunyan, who lost a brother in the disaster.

Many of these pupils have grown up in "domiks", metal transport containers brought to Gyumri as temporary shelters, which became permanent because of the slow pace of reconstruction. Mr Harutyunyan lived in one himself until 1999. "Thank goodness there are no domik schools in Gyumri any more," he says.

The city named the school after Byron because of the poet's interest in Armenia's language and culture. It takes pupils aged six to 17 and was built for 450, but today more than 1,000 are enrolled, split into morning and afternoon shifts six days a week. They follow a curriculum that would be considered demanding in most state schools in England. All study English language and literature as well as the history and geography of Britain, alongside that of Armenia. They all learn Russian too, as well as physics, chemistry and biology.

"If the children want a deeper understanding then there are additional classes after school," says Mr Harutyunyan, adding that pupils pay means-tested charges to attend such lessons.

"English is studied from the first class. For the high school students we have eight hours per week, for the younger ones it is only four or five."

The classrooms all carry the names in English of the curriculum subjects, from music to information and communications technology. The library is stocked with English titles and decorated with a banner from Holgate comprehensive, Lord Byron's sister school, close to the poet's ancestral home in Nottinghamshire.

The air is chilly inside the building and pupils and teachers often sit in coats during lessons. Temperatures in Gyumri's brutal winters can plunge to minus 20C. "We have a boiler system, but we can not use it because it was British-designed and the running costs would just overwhelm our budget," explains the principal. "We try to put some electric heaters in each classroom in winter to make the air warmer, but heating is our number one problem."

Maintenance is another. In one classroom, buckets catch water leaking through holes in the roof covering caused by hailstone showers. Mr Harutyunyan says he receives less than pound;5,000 annually from the Armenian authorities to pay for repairs and utility bills. Armenian exiles in Britain provide additional financial support.

Salaries for the 82 teachers average around only pound;30 per month.

Armenia has suffered widespread poverty since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the World Bank estimates that half the population survives on the equivalent of 60p a day.

In one classroom, Servenik Movsisyan is teaching English to a group of seven-year-olds. "They can already talk to each other and write sentences," she says. "We emphasise grammar; at the moment they are learning the present continuous and the simple present tenses. I am also telling them the story of Beowulf, which they like because it has a lot of similarities to our own epic poems."

Mrs Movsisyan, 56, was less than impressed by the standards she encountered in England when she was part of a group from the school that took part in a Byron festival two years ago. "We attended a lot of classes and saw interesting new methods, but there are things that I prefer in the old ways. For example, when we teach we correct the children's mistakes," she says.

"English is their mother tongue, yet in England pupils in the early secondary grades were taught very little in the lessons. They seemed to learn only two or three words. Here, we teach them much more and at an earlier age."

In his office, which was furnished as a gift from the Secondary Heads Association, Mr Harutyunyan keeps a video of the day Lady Thatcher came to Gyumri to open the new school. "We welcomed her here with our open souls," he says. "The British were able to construct a little English island here for us and for them. Sometimes I think we have everything in English in this school except us."

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