Where school is cool
In the sunlit classrooms of Novotroitskaya school in Siberia, children in plaits and lace collars sit at handmade wooden desks. Approaching their maths class with good-tempered enthusiasm, they take turns to jump up and make a contribution to the work on the old-fashioned blackboards. Outside, the school's airy halls and corridors are painted with murals of silver birches and the floors marked up for games of hopscotch. Through the windows, a horse-drawn sled makes its way through the snow.
This vision of schooling from another place and time is having a powerful effect on British headteachers paying a British Council-sponsored visit to Russia. The 10 heads of specialist secondary schools have found an innocence and commitment to learning in Russian schools that seems all but lost at home. "It comes from a general understanding that education is a passport to the future," says Michael Carding, head of Bishop Heber high school in Cheshire. "The young people have a clear focus on what they are there for, a determination to make progress, and they have a respect for their teachers as people."
The British Council's International Placements for Headteachers (IPH) programme - now entering its third year - has taken 570 heads to countries ranging from Serbia to Thailand. As well as leadership, parties have looked at thinking skills, inclusion and headteacher mentoring. This time it is the turn of a group of heads of specialist schools to spend a week in Omsk in Siberia, looking at provision for gifted and talented students.
Arriving with memories of Olga Korbut - the Russian child gymnast who took the 1972 Munich Olympics by storm - and in the week education minister David Miliband was announcing the creation of four new specialist dance and drama schools, heads were expecting to be shown sporting and musical hothouses. But the model on the snowy ground in Siberia proves more egalitarian.
Russian education is in flux. Teaching methods are under scrutiny, as rote learning goes out of style and national testing comes in. Where once the state provided everything, now parents must pay for textbooks, lunches, decoration of the school - and the supplementary education that forms the basis of Russia's gifted and talented provision.
At Novotroitskaya, a mixed-age village school of 230 children, the day lasts from 8am until 3pm. After that, students can attend any of 14 "circles" - clubs run by teachers or other adults in the community, in which children can pursue their interests in subjects including history, advanced origami and gardening.
Rural schools have logistical restrictions on the degree of specialism they can offer students out of hours. But the range of supplementary schooling available in the city of Omsk - population 1.3 million - is notable. Most urban schools operate a shift system, with children attending in the morning or the afternoon. Outside school hours, students can opt to pursue almost any interest, with parents making a small contribution to the cost.
At the Litsejsky theatre, a lively after-school programme caters for students of various ages and abilities; enthusiasm rules as a class of students demonstrate how they breathe from their bellies, scream, project and impersonate. Students progress from a general drama club to more specialist classes; the most talented may be recruited into the theatre company, in this dramatically-aware city of five theatres.
Visiting Litsejsky theatre prompts a rueful discussion among the English heads about how to "light up" specialisms. Is the learning here being measured, they ask rhetorically. Is it being checked? British education, they agree, can manifest more old-style Soviet qualities than Russian education does. This impression is reinforced when, at the Additional Education Institute - where, each week 5,000 seven to 21-year-olds pursue subjects from swimming to ballet to model-making - the principal smilingly informs the heads: "We don't have any targets. The focus of our attention is the interest the children show."
As in the mainstream schools, the institute's buildings are run-down but homely: classrooms decorated with tiers of potted plants, a cat at home in the corridors and a smell of baking rising from the canteen. The charge to families is around 50p a month - low even by local standards - and the institute opens from 9am until mid-evening. Heads enjoy a vision of the stars in a home-made planetarium run by a passionate enthusiast whose potential to inspire children is clear. Enthusiasm is everywhere in Russian schools, among adults and children.
Part of the resistance to provision for gifted pupils at home comes from what Jane Mann, head of Morpeth's 14-18 King Edward VI school, calls the potentially "elitist agenda". In Omsk, this is reversed. All students seem to have the chance, for a nominal fee, to enrol in supplementary schools or clubs. The most able may be sifted out to join theatre companies or be removed to conservatoires in Moscow and St Petersburg. But all the students seem confident of their abilities; even nursery children jump up to recite Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or a verse by Pushkin.
Because students are self-selected for the extended education, the rhetoric of the rector of the Omsk teachers' training university, Professor Chourkin ("everyone has a gift or talent") becomes meaningful. As the week in Siberia wears on, the ostensible purpose of the visit becomes partly submerged; the heads begin to ask themselves wider and deeper questions about the state of British education. Russia's system has much in common with Britain's. Teachers earn less than other professionals (only pound;27 a month for new teachers in Omsk) and tend not to stay in the profession.
Thirty per cent of young people - mainly boys - fail to complete secondary education. In the district of Omsk, where schools may be 400 miles from the administrative centre, computerisation and modern teaching methods are hard to introduce at the margins. But the disaffection that affects so many British students is nowhere evident in the schools the Russians choose to display to their visitors.
Iain Blaikie, head of a mixed grammar school in Alcester, likes what he sees. "Blair's millions don't transform education," he says. "It's the people and the ethos that count. In the middle of Siberia, there's a warmth to it."