Secondary Education in Moscow

secondary-educationYou are thinking about moving to Russia with your family, or you have been here for some time and wondering how to educate your children if you stay on? Perhaps you are dissatisfied with the school that your child is going to and would like to know what else is available? In the first part of a three-article series on education, Moscow expat Life discovered that there is a surprising amount of choice available.

The choice of schooling in Moscow is complex. If you want to provide a western education which will give your child the same opportunities as he or she would benefit from by attending a good school back home, then there is really only one kind of school for you here; the so-called ‘international schools.’ There are currently five such schools which are established, and they are expanding year by year as Russian parents also recognise the value of such schools. There are also specialist schools which act for the non-English speaking international community, such as the Indian School and the Swedish school. Some of these schools have their own premises; others are very small and offer courses for only a limited age range within the premises of large established English-language schools. International school provision outside Moscow is very limited. There are some options in St. Petersburg, but otherwise there are only a few small non self-sustaining schools, usually with a distance learning component. You are advised to check carefully before accepting a provincial job, if taking the family.

kids-golfBeing an education provider in Russian is not easy. There are rules and regulations from the Ministry of Education to abide with; there are problems that teachers face coming to terms with life here, and a multitude of other issues which parents never find out about. Teachers in the best schools are qualified foreign nationals who work here on contract and teach in their mother tongue. The high cost of education at these establishments can be partly explained by the fact that good teachers do have to be given a remuneration package that motivates them to come here, and stay on. Links with schools and universities back home have to be maintained.

How do you decide which school is right for your child? Cost aside, parents want to know which curriculum the schools follows, the main distinction being between schools which offer The International Baccalaureate (IB), and the UK-style IGCSE and ‘A’ levels. Paul Seedhouse, Headmaster of the International School of Moscow commented: “Our school uses the English National Curriculum as a basis but is contextualised to our position here in Russia and to support British and International families. In Secondary school in Year 10 children begin their IGCSE courses – typically 6 subjects selected by them along with English Language, Literature, Maths and ICT that allows them to study up to 10 subjects in total. At the end of Year 11 they will then have the opportunity to complete ‘A’ Levels in up to 4 subjects that will allow them to enter universities all over the world.”

Paul Seedhouse, Headmaster of the International School of Moscow

Paul Seedhouse, Headmaster of the International School of Moscow

Most western universities accept a variety of different qualifications and a few hours spent researching exactly what qualifications particular universities accept for certain courses is time well spent. This may be ‘mission impossible’ as nobody – including your child – can pinpoint the university he or she wants to go to until the time comes to apply; and getting into a chosen university is never easy. It may be possible, nevertheless, to determine which country the university will be in; and thus which curriculum to aim for.

Academic qualifications and prospects aside, talking to other parents is perhaps the best way to find out how successful a school is. Most parents are quite naturally highly subjective when it comes to their own children, so you need to talk to quite a few families to get an accurate picture of a particular school. A visit to the school/s which you are considering is essential, with your child.

In terms of academic standards, the international schools equate to the level of education provided by reasonably good private schools (or public schools in America). Students address teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss,’ uniforms are worn and an air of respect, cleanliness and order rules most of the time. As a whole, the international schools do their job, and give children a home education whilst abroad. It is important to understand that this is what is being provided. Your child will to all intents and purposes be spending six hours a day in a foreign country. This works well when parents are foreigners and their acquaintances are foreigners. If you wish your child to not only speak your language without a Russian accent and write convincingly then an international school is for you. If you are here for only a few years and if you consider your cultural heritage to be overwhelmingly important, or if you wish your child to enjoy the benefits of a western private education then an international school is also the only option. But the children themselves (the most important people) may not fully integrate with Russian society at an international school. This may well be the exact reason why parents want their children to go to an international school, although there will be Russian children in each class. The exact proportion of foreigners to Russians is something that parents should find out about.

skiing-kidsWhen one of the parents is Russian and the family lives in two different cultural worlds at the same time, the child may experience cultural identity problems. Parents who argue amongst themselves as to which language to speak at home should perhaps consider that from the child’s point of view, such conflicts are absurd. Most children can relate to stability, so if one parent speaks consistently in one language and the other in another, then there is no real problem. Your child will grow up knowing two languages, which is not the same as being bilingual, but gets pretty close to it!

For many foreigners living here, the international schools are simply too expensive. So, what of Russian schools? It would be foolish to write them off. A tradition of emphasis on the three ‘r’s; a perhaps useful hangover from the Soviet school system is still present in most Russian schools. Russian children who transfer to western schools usually find themselves in the top streams of their new western school for maths and science subjects. Art and music are not taught as a core subject in most Russian schools, because of the Soviet; and now Russian emphasis on ‘useful’ subjects. So if your child is artistic he or she will have to attend a network of special evening art centres for children around Moscow. Most of these are good, if somewhat classical. As at school, tuition will be in Russian. Most Russian teachers are extremely well qualified, and loyalty to particular schools is still there, although as in any other capital city there are good schools and bad schools.

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There is a category of Russian schools which corresponds roughly with our idea of ‘grammar’ (UK) or ‘magnet’ (USA) schools. Long-time expat Charles Borden who is married to a Russian and whose child attends one of these Russian grammar schools commented: “These schools usually have dress codes and classes six days a week. Entrance exams are required. The entry year is US 5th class. In my son’s grade there are about 60 students divided between three groups of 20. Based upon my personal observation it seems to me that my son is well ahead of US schools in maths. He has taken courses in Latin and French. He will select a third language (besides English and Russian) beginning next year. As for preparation for a foreign university, at least for the United States, the main requirements will be a good score on academic SAT or ACT exams, and TOEFL. A good score on the SAT or ACT tests would mean there would be no problem whatsoever with TOEFL. Preparation for the SAT or ACT exams means independent work. I am extremely pleased with my son’s school, and the education he is receiving. As long as he maintains a strong link with home and English language (through visits, friends), I think graduation from a Russian school will be a real plus for his future education and life.”

classroomWhilst certainly cheaper in comparison to international schools, most Russian schools do not offer a direct pathway into foreign universities. Critics point to high level of cheating at exams and corruption when it comes to university entrance. A more realistic comparison would be with state schools back home, in which case Russian state schools – in my opinion – come out as clear winners. Russian students actually know more than their western school leavers. Be this as it may, the Russian secondary school certificate is treated – perhaps incorrectly in the UK – as being at the same level as Scottish Highers; to AS level only which is an exam taken at 17. Thus many UK institutions may demand that students complete a foundation year and attain at least a 4.5 score at IELTS before entering university. The British Council web site may be able to give you more detailed information. Many brilliant Russian school leavers have not been accepted in top UK universities simply because they are too young, although most western universities value Russian students highly. Despite this, a large number of Russian school children do enter UK universities. In the US, Russian school leavers seem to have fewer problems, as long as one factors in the necessity to obtain the necessary SAT and ACT scores, which can place considerable extra stress on the child at a difficult age.

classroom2Nine Russian state schools in Moscow now provide IB programmes, mostly taught by Russian nationals. Such Russian schools have to abide by standards set by the International IB authorities. Another 20 schools are waiting for course approval. As all Russian schools are bound by charter to prepare children for Russian State examinations, IB students have to sit for both IB exams as well as Russian state exams, although for most students this does not present too much of a challenge due to the fact that academic standards on IB courses are not inferior to those of the Russian curriculum. The IB curriculum does, however, demand more individual research than Russian state school graduation exams. IB students going on to western universities generally still have to attend extra-curriculum courses to acquire the necessary IELTS/SAT scores needed to gain access to particular foreign institutions, which somewhat destroys the whole purpose of doing IB in the first place. International schools say that this does not present a problem at their school. It is worth checking up.

Marianna Rovneiko, the IB coordinator at L.I Milgram Moscow Gymnasium No 45, confirmed that the Middle Year IB programme (Russian 5-9 years) is free of charge for parents, whilst the two-year IB diploma course (Russian years 10-11) costs 245,000 roubles a year. Children have to sit an entrance examination for the diploma programme in Maths, Russian and English.

Apart from good Russian State schools, there are an increasing number of Russian private schools which cater for the Russian financial elite. These schools are expensive, and although they can afford to employ good Russian teachers, do not necessarily offer a better education than Russian state schools. This is perhaps difficult to understand for most expats; however it is worth considering that most Russians are not in favour of paying for education. Russian secondary schools still retain a core of extremely proficient teachers from Soviet times who may be advanced in age, but still provide a certain backbone of standards, emotional care and stability which younger, more expensive schools are unable to do.

An article about higher education will follow in the summer edition of Moscow expat Life. If readers have any particular questions, please send them to editor@moscowexpatlife.ru