STRATEGISTS SHOULD LOOK TO RUSSIA TO
MAKE EDUCATION FASHIONABLE IN UK
Being the first to
put your hand up and getting answers right is not always cool in
British schools. While a handful of pupils manage to walk the fine
line between academic achievement and popularity, it is more
likely for the clever, hard-working child to be picked on as a
"swot" or "teacher’s pet". Even "brainbox"
is hardly a term of endearment.
The problem is
more acute among boys, and government strategists in the UK are
looking at ways to make education trendy.
In the former
Soviet Union and now Russia, the opposite is the case there:
pupils want to learn and there is no shame in it. Admittedly the
Soviet education system had its defects —learning was
largely by rote. Thinking for yourself, playing the devil’s
advocate and asking questions were not encouraged. But within the
classroom bright children were the heroes and the slower ones
worked hard to be like them.
even extended to the playground, where it was the clever ones, not
the truants, who were gang leaders and organised games. "It
was the reverse to here," says Alexander Anichkin, a foreign
correspondent who was educated in Moscow and now lives in Britain.
"It was the people at the bottom of the class who were
taunted and derided. Everyone worked hard so as not to come
bottom. I was useless at chemistry but worked all hours so that my
friends wouldn’t laugh at me for getting poor results. This
attitude was encouraged by the teachers, who held up the clever
pupils as examples."
Anichkin believes that political
correctness is part of the British problem. "Here everybody bends
over backwards to find excuses for the under-achievers. In Russia some
people are frequently drunk, but that is not an excuse to under-perform at
school. In Britain teachers can be afraid to encourage bright kids openly
because it might offend the under-achievers," he says.
such kudos in Russia that the start of the academic year is a
national event. Girls put bows in their hair, boys scrub their
faces, photographers take pictures and children walking into
school are made to feel special.
a doctor of philology who has taught in Russia and the West, says:
"There is a strong feeling that children are the country’s
future and education is the key to that. Teachers are highly
respected by society and have their own day when everyone thanks
their old teachers or gives them flowers or chocolates. Knowledge
is seen as more than exams. It gives you access to society, ease
of mobility, and above all, status among your peers.
a poet, literary critic and part-time teacher who was once thrown
out of the Herzen - Moscow's leading literary institute - for anto-Soviet
propaganda, makes the following point: "Education has always
been seen as something more than facts and figures. In Russia
children understand, suprisingly early, that is a source of
capital that cannot be taken away from you. I was at school in the
Fifties and to us gaining an education, acquiring knowledge, was
almost an act of rebellion. It meant access to higher cultural and
spiritual values that took you away from daily Soviet values - it
was an escape from behind the Iron Curtain even while you still
lived behind it. It was something that no whim of the system could
take away from you."
"Interestingly, the same
attitude prevails today. After the rouble crashed in August 1998 I
noticed a renewed interest in education among the students. They
saw the fortunes that people had amassed were wiped out and
realised that education is ‘capital’ that cannot be wiped out
by a stock exchange crash"
The success of
education in Russia extends to attitudes outside the classroom.
‘There has always been a great respect for intellectuals, unlike
in Britain where they are often dismissed as ‘the chattering
classes’," says Anichkin. "Even the Communists, who
were frightened of them, set intellectuals up with dachas and
tended to leave them alone as long as they didn’t overstep the
mark. People noticed this. It is a great insult, in Russian, to be
described as nekuiturnjs (uncultured).
whatever their social status, wants to be seen as uncultured. As a
result even your plumber or your taxi driver will be able to quote
a few verses of Pushkin"