Private schools feel the squeeze

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
President Putin has landed another blow on the struggling independent sector. Terry Bushell reports


Independent schools in Russia, which burgeoned after the fall of communism, say they are having a tough time because the state has removed their benefits, bureaucrats torment them with inspectors, and they are losing investors.

In the latest blow, president Putin has announced he is using his oil cash bonanza to raise state teachers' salaries by 30 per cent, forcing independent schools to follow suit. And in January they will lose their last remaining tax benefit, following a cull two years ago.

"New threats are looming," said Anna Putsello, director of Dubravushka school near Moscow. "In January, property tax benefits will be removed. And we have to increase salaries to attract good teachers.

"I spent this summer working out ways to economise. Trips that were free now have to be paid for by the parents, class sizes have to be bigger, and we have had to cut staff. Fifty per cent of our income is spent on wages.

It makes the business unprofitable."

Dubravushka is better off than most, however. When Mrs Putsello founded it in 1989 she had high-profile backing, which enabled her to buy the premises.

It is now reckoned that any private school opened in the past five years without the support of big sponsors stands little chance of survival. Most of the country's private schools are in Moscow and the surrounding region, where there are about 270. Russia's third biggest city, the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk, has only 14.

Russia has three types of independent school. The first type charges relatively low tuition fees (pound;160-pound;270 a month) - and is run by idealists to provide a good alternative education. For premises, most use decrepit former kindergarten buildings which the school cannot afford to renovate, with the perpetual threat of being closed down by the state health standards authority, or rent part of a state school, with the rent continually being raised.

Their future has always been precarious. Until recent tax reforms it was impossible to pay all the myriad taxes. Alexander Papko, the director of Eureka school in Novosibirsk, said: "Taxes are throttling us." All schools cite high and numerous taxes as a major burden.

The second type has monthly tuition fees of pound;270-pound;420.

Buildings are usually in good repair, situated in pleasant surroundings, have up-to-date sporting facilities, comfortable classrooms and a good canteen. Dubravushka is in this group, and is now having to make stringent cutbacks.

The third type is for the super-rich "new Russians", where the fees can be up to pound;1,100 a month. Naturally, all the facilities are excellent, including armed guards.

This group includes schools set up by giant companies for the children of their top executives. The monolithic energy company Gazprom and computer firm Mikrodin are two companies that have founded schools for their own.

And the billionaire wife of the mayor of Moscow set up a school just for their daughter.

Schools in this last group will thrive, of course. For the remainder, there is no private-school paradise east of Eton.

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