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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ready for the Competition

The white-and-emerald building of the English International School can't help but stand out against the brown and gray hues of the nearby run-down buildings of its lower-middle-class neighborhood in east Moscow. There is an even sharper contrast inside the courtyard, where children are playing football and shouting in English. Hearing some 20 people -- aged 10 to mid-30s -- speaking varieties of English at the same time is so puzzling that sometimes it is hard to remember that the school is in Novogireyevo, rather than Fulham or Brighton.

For a business that was launched a year and a half ago, the EIS is doing pretty well. "Almost certainly we will have filled up our capacity in the next couple of years, and we will need to expand in some way or other," said EIS headmaster Ross Hunter. Another newcomer, the International School of Moscow (ISM) in Krylatskoye, is already full and expanding further into a secondary school after less than 12 months of operating.

For years, there were only two options for Moscow-based expats who didn't want their children to go to Russian schools -- the Anglo-American School of Moscow (AAS) and the British International School (BIS). Sponsored by the U.S., British and Canadian embassies, AAS gives a priority to children of diplomats from these countries. The school, however, prides itself on being genuinely international, with 60 nationalities represented on its campus in Pokrovsky Hills, according to AAS spokeswoman Rita Ehrman. BIS operates eight campuses across Moscow, serving a total of 1,500 pupils, making it the biggest English-language school in the city.

Like BIS, the ISM provides extra English classes for nonnative speakers while pursuing strict admissions policies.

"We only allow a maximum of 20 percent of a class to have English as a second language, and we only allow 20 percent of one nationality," said Sian Andrews, the head of the ISM primary school. "That ensures that the school remains truly international and that there are many native English speakers in the class."

Penny Millar, a mother of three who has been living in Moscow since September, says she chose the EIS in Novogireyevo because of its international feeling, as opposed to the British or American environment that dominates other schools. "It's got just the right number of Russians, native English speakers and international kids," Millar said. "The good thing about international schools is that they are very inclusive." EIS boasts students of 27 nationalities.

A large number of children at EIS and ISM are bilingual, although some of them started at the school with a very low level of English. "If somebody comes with no English at all, we will give them individual tuition one to two hours a day for the first few months," Hunter said. "Children can go from not a word to functional English in a term."

Irish national Kevin Maloney chose EIS so that his daughter, whose mother is Russian, would speak English at a reasonable level. "The child grew up speaking Russian as the first language," he said. "We started here [at EIS] in September. Already she speaks fluent English," Maloney said. "The support in a smaller school, I think, is much stronger."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
A multinational second-grade class at the English International School hears a story.

For Russian kids like 10-year-old twins Andrei and Daniil, there would no way to get into AAS or BIS. "They would need a very high level of English from the start," said their mother, Irina Adlerova. She thinks that going to school in an English-speaking environment will prepare her children to go abroad for university. "At least there will be no surprises for them," she said. "I like it that the school has kids from different cultural backgrounds, so that my children are exposed to different approaches to life."

Smaller schools are offering something that giants like AAS and BIS simply cannot give. "We didn't want to go to AAS -- we thought it was too big," said Alex Arden, whose daughter is in the fourth grade at EIS. "We have small class sizes, and there's a very strong family feeling," said Hunter. "Looking after each child individually seems to make a difference." Most classes at EIS have six to seven pupils.

Sian Andrews of ISM says the new schools have definitely changed the landscape of English education in Moscow. "With the other two schools, you either had to go to this school for the American system or you could go to this other school and have the British system," she said. "Now we have more options and it means there is a choice whereas before there wasn't really a choice." The EIS's Hunter agrees: "Coming to Moscow, expats are actually very lucky in that they've got a choice among the viably good schools. In smaller cities around the world, the international school may or may not be good."

Andrews, who was part of an international school in Beijing before coming to ISM, believes that more competition is a healthy thing: "If you're the only school there, it's quite easy to get complacent." AAS Director Drew Alexander had no comment on whether the competition has had an effect on his business.

The Russian market has shown much more potential than the new schools even imagine. "We thought it'd be great if we got 120 students, but thought we'd probably get about 80," said Andrews, whose school now has an enrollment of 170.

Does that mean four schools is not enough? "Almost certainly!" Ross Hunter says. "We are only nine years away from the collapse of the post-Soviet economy," said the EIS headmaster who expects more schools to be opening in the next couple of years. "If you look at the rates at which Russia and particularly Moscow has recovered and matured in those nine years, project that another nine -- and you will surely need at least double the places you have now."


English International School of Moscow

66A Zelyony Prospect
301-2104; 301-9116
M. Novogireyevo

International School of Moscow
12 Krylatskaya Ul. Bldgs 5 and 6
499-149-4434; 499-140-4308