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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

GROWING PAINS: Victorian Education Is Lesson in Humiliation




Spring is in the air, and a mother's mind turns to autumn and the new school year. This is especially true of mothers of 6-year-olds (leaving kindergarten) or 9-year-olds (leaving primary school), and since I have one of each, I'm starting to feel the strain.


Now's the time when agitated moms cluster outside kindergarten gates, feverishly discussing the best options. To me, this should all be old hat: I went through the same hassle three years ago with Sasha, then 6, figuring that since we're living in Moscow and her dad is Russian, she should go to a Russian school. I diligently trekked around a dozen or so state and private schools before finding a private primary school with four small classes. Ideal, I thought. But I was wrong.


Not being allowed to attend lessons, I didn't realize that she had a fierce class teacher of the old school (Victorian Soviet!) whose teaching methods relied on cutting sarcasm, fearand a "don't-tell-your-parents" policy. My normally bright and ebullient child grew more and more withdrawn and started getting consistently bad grades.


Then she started crying before school every morning, but was too scared to say why. I realized something was very wrong. On a rare Open House Day, when parents can attend lessons, all was revealed. It wasn't just the attitude that pupils must sit up straight with folded arms and not open their mouths until they've learned everything by heart (which is what one might still expect in a state school) but the obvious delight the teacher took in individual humiliation that shocked me.


I took Sasha out of school the next day and wearily began the quest for a new one -- but this time one recommended by friends. Luckily, the first I found was a private school called Free-style near the university, with a friendly, learning-is-fun atmosphere and encouraging teachers. Sasha loves it -- it's similar to the school she attended in England -- and she's back to her old, happy self.


But alas, it's just a primary school (up to age 9), so although I now know where to send my two younger children, Sasha's future is again up in the air. On one hand, private schools, as I've found out to my cost, are a very hit-and-miss affair, but, on the other, state schools are suffering greatly from education cutbacks. They might not even have a teacher for every subject, not to mention the required textbooks. In one school I visited, the children were mopping the floors themselves.


There are good state schools, but they are almost impossible to get into unless you live on the doorstep and have a highly intelligent child. Maybe I should take a tip from one Russian mom: "You can prepare them for the entrance exams until you're blue in the face, but the most important factor is that one little question at the bottom of the application form: 'What can you do for the school?'"