Russian schools, education and values

The other day I was walking by a recently constructed apartment building. Like most new residential construction, it has a playground for the children who are going to be living in those apartments. What caught my eye is the “decoration” that was chosen for the playground.

As you can see in the picture above, there is a side panel, next to the slide and the swings, with “an educational aim” for children of various ages. It contains the Cyrillic alphabet and the numbers from zero to nine for the little ones, then some basic algebra expansion formulas for binomials for the teenagers and eve some chemistry and physics formulas with no explanation (I am not sure how many children will fully grasp Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence and why it is associated with an apple, but that’s besides the point).

This made me think about the role and the value of scholarly education in Russia. I decided I didn’t know enough about it and so I did some research. This is what I found out.

Public education was a point of pride in the Soviet Union. Just a few months before the dissolution of the USSR, a school reform was actually taking shape and at the end of 1990 an 11-year course (out of which 9 are mandatory) officially came into operation, thus lengthening by one year the previous system of primary and secondary education.

The following year all students got “a taste of freedom” as they could ditch the navy blue (for boys) and brown (for girls) clothes and attend classes in jeans and t-shirts. Compulsory school uniforms were “de facto” abolished in 1991 when the Soviet enterprises producing it closed down. Officially, they were cancelled three years later, when very few people still wore it, as it was completely out of the stores for several years.

But things soon started to deteriorate quickly, and not just under a fashion perspective.

The 1990s and early 2000s were a time of deep crisis and the school system had to undergo many cuts due to the economic situation and the state budget restraints. The situation never became tragic, and a 2015 estimate by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (not the *most* Russian friendly agency in the world…) still puts the literacy rate in Russia at 99.7% (99.7% for men, 99.6% for women), meaning that essentially no one really got completely left behind. Moreover, according to a 2016 OECD estimate, 54% of Russia’s adults (25- to 64-year-olds) has attained a tertiary (university or college) education, giving Russia the second-highest attainment of tertiary education among 35 OECD member-countries.

Things started to get (that means return to being) even better in the early to mid 2000s, when the economy in general healed from the post-soviet shock. Russia’s expenditure on education has grown from 2.7% of the GDP in 2005 to 3.8% in 2013 and in 2003 Russia co-signed the Bologna Declaration in order to migrate its university system toward a degree structure in line with the Bologna Process model. This is doubly important. First of all to make the Russian university degree “compatible” with the “Western” (by now a world standard) academic qualifications and also to keep Russia an appealing destination where to study. In 2014 Russia ranked as the 6th most-popular destination for international students and the same year the Pearson/Economist Intelligence Unit rated Russia’s education as the 8th-best in Europe and the 13th-best in the world. By 2017 It had moved back one position, to the 7th place. Now the numbers are growing again, with 296,178 foreign students in 2017 and 313,089 in 2018 (+5.71%).

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These are the numbers, but I want to focus more on the approach to education that I have seen and felt here in Russia.

It is, as always, impossible to make any statement that would be true for 100% of the people, but as as a rule I have seen that families and students alike not only take school very seriously, they also value it very highly. Contrary to other cultures where school is mandatory, if you do not apply yourself to your studies you are not seen as a “cool rebel”, but rather as a “lazy dumb”.

This is not to say that if you have actual problems in learning you are left behind. An honored tradition dating back to the USSR is that everybody should achieve a satisfactory level of knowledge. Not everyone is going to be a mathematician or a nuclear particle engineer, but each pupil should graduate from school with at least the necessary intellectual tools he or she will need in life.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publishes a wealth of information and graphs about the school systems and results in pretty much the whole world. Regarding Russia I find particularly significant what they say on the percentage of low performers.

Low performers in science are unable to use basic or everyday scientific knowledge to interpret data and draw a valid scientific conclusion. In mathematics, they cannot compute the approximate price of an object in a different currency or compare the total distance across two alternative routes. In reading, low performers struggle with recognising the main idea in a text.

And these are the stats about Russia:

Source: http://www.compareyourcountry.org/pisa/country/rus?lg=en

In all subjects you can see a very strong and very definite trend starting in the early to mid 2000s on increased care for the lowest performing students, to the point that by the year 2015 almost everyone receives a satisfactory education. And, mind you, this has nothing to do with passing or failing exams, as these assessments are made by the OECD and not by the pupil’s teachers or state organs.

In 2003 a new reform was passed, which re-introduced the school uniforms in Russia. Luckily they are nowhere near as drab as they were in Soviet times, and they are not standard nation-wise. Each school or school district can choose a veritable uniform or provide guidelines (a single color collar shirt, slacks, and so on).

In general only younger kids wear uniforms, but the older ones are required to attend school in a “business” or “business casual” attire, especially if they are in the last year. It is not uncommon, therefore, to see young boys and girls aged 16, 17 or 18 leaving their schools dressed much, much smarter than the people working in banks or financial institutions!


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