Last Update: 09 April, 2003



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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.

This popularity 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.

Education carries 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.

Darys Razumikhina, 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.

Konstantin Kedrov, 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).

"No one, 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"




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