I recently experienced more than jet lag after I flew to Russia as part of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review team. Severe cognitive dissonance set in when the deputy minister explained that child-centred education was "in", whole-class teaching "out". It was explained that "in view of the fact that simple skills and factual knowledge easily become outdated in a rapidly changing contemporary world, the humanisation of the school curriculum implies a transition to personality-oriented, child-centred approaches".
As our team proceeded on our journey, we visited schools, pedagogical universities and local teachers' centres. Newer methods of group work were proudly demonstrated, although it was also evident that what the authorities described as the "positive conservatism" of teachers meant that some excellent whole-class teaching remained. However, it was difficult for us westerners to explain why we are now moving into a post-modernist phase in which what the Russians believe is "progressive" is considered "traditional" and rather older teaching methods are now being re-launched as "progressive".
Such conceptual confusion reminded me that quite a lot of pedagogical and curricular change is culturally and politically driven. Seeking an objective, scientific rationale isn't necessarily the main point. Thus, the Russians have their own political and social history to deal with. Not surprisingly, this has led them to lay great emphasis in their current reforms on the humanities, on civic education and on the development of the individual personality. What the larger historic drives are in countries such as ours is an equally interesting question, but one which probably won't be addressed.
It is, though, impossible not to compare and contrast when visiting another country. For instance, the tensions between central control and decentralisation are dramatic and giant in Russia - but the issues exposed relate to some of our own concerns. The Russian rhetoric of devolution is full of liberal, democratic values as well as promises of increased efficiency. But the anxieties of Moscow-based officials that the regions, municipalities and educational establishments can't be trusted are also creeping in. There is thus talk of "unpardonable legal nihilism", reports of vocational schools being sold off to the highest bidder and stories of misappropriation of catering budgets needed for orphans.
There is also a good deal of angst about what is meant by a Russian identity and the rise of competing ethnic identities, some of which are anti-Russian. Intersecting all such Tolstoyan concerns about Slavic culture and the Russian soul are other, more basic problems which also reverberate from the nineteenth century. Only 20 per cent of Russian children are now classified as healthy, and it is evident that serious poverty is widespread.
In the midst of this, schools are warm, humane centres of civility and security. The teachers are deeply professional in the traditional sense of being altruistic and dutiful. True, there have been sporadic outbreaks of dissension, following three or more months without salaries being paid. Either Chechnya or the International Monetary Fund, or both, are blamed for this.
The Russians are proud of their sayings and there seems to be one for every occasion. "A fisherman recognises another fisherman from afar" was used when, across the static interference of translation, the presence of teachers in the OECD team was sensed. In Moe, we were warned against accepting, at face value, "Potemkin villages". These were showpiece contrivances erected, and later dismantled, when Catherine the Great sailed forth to visit her people. OFSTED may not need to note such cynical warnings and neither, I assume, would it want to arrange a job swap with one of the regional school inspectors we met. When asked about her strategy if a less than competent teacher was identified, she was visibly stunned and perplexed. Eventually, after a further translation of our question, she said that if this was at all conceivable in the future, then the pupils' conduct would have to be investigated. She added, rather severely, that Russian teachers had all been rigorously trained in Russian universities. End of story.
We all wish the Russians well. Their strong belief in the value of education still underpins the work of teachers, as well as other educators, including parents. Their kindergartens are stunning, with a one-to-eight ratio of professional educators to children and high levels of expectation across an arts- and language-centred curriculum. The out-of-school clubs and societies at local level deepen and widen children's learning. Young Pioneer and Komsomol structures and ideology may have gone, but the specialist youth centres and summer schools for sports, music, ecology, visual art and many more interests somehow or another live on. Ironically, perhaps, their survival derives from the refusal of Boris Yeltsin's government fully to devolve education budgets to the regions and municipalities.
This refusal also underlies the relatively generous staffing standards in schools, where class size rarely exceeds 25, and the constitutional requirement that rural schools may be closed or re-organised only when "everyone in the local community" agrees. "Social protection" is the policy banner under which such devolution is restricted. How long it can last is debatable. Irrespective of whether Yeltsin is re-elected, federal ministers are caught in a pincer movement from the regions and the International Monetary Fund, both of which want more decentralisation. Say no more.
Margaret Maden is Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for Successful Schools, Keele University.