The view from here - Belarus - Labour camps: the new holiday destination

3rd February 2012 at 00:00

Governed with an iron fist by Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Poland and Russia, is best described as "Europe's last dictatorship". If comments by government ministers on the subject of education are anything to go by, this ruthless approach shows no sign of abating. Indeed, rather than modelling itself on its increasingly westernised and democratic neighbours in the Baltics, Belarus is instead looking to more autocratic regimes for inspiration.

In December 2011, deputy prime minister Anatoly Tozik suggested schools had become too "soft" and children needed to be "loaded up", citing the example of China, where he said pupils would not be seen "lounging around on the streets" at weekends because they were attending extra classes. There have also been calls for children to be set to work in "labour camps" during the summer, with education minister Sergei Maskevich reportedly saying last year that there was "nothing wrong" with pupils as young as 14 doing shifts on farms. "There is a practice of secondary schools working with agricultural enterprises to help them," he said at the time, sounding less 21st century and more Maoist.

Internet forums in Belarus have, however, shown a strong degree of opposition to the government's position on schooling, with some parents saying their children were enduring high pressure in the classroom.

This criticism has been echoed by the European Humanities University, a Belarusian institution based in Vilnius, Lithuania, where it has been functioning since it was exiled in 2004. Its rector and founder, Dr Anatoli Mikhailov, told TES that his native land's education system is mired in repression.

"The Belarusian government's approach to education is emblematic of the way in which it treats people in general," he said. "It sees them as passive recipients of government-sanctioned messages and information. In this case, schools serve as the conduit for transmitting such propaganda. While active learning methodologies have proven their effectiveness and are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the world, Belarusian schools have barely been touched by reform since the fall of the Soviet Union."

These educational approaches are, however, probably handy if you happen to be a quasi-Stalinist dictator keen to keep your people in their place.

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