In the first of a series of honest talks about subjects relevant to expats, Moscow expat Life invited two experts; David Gilmartin, General manager, Troika Relocations and Lucy Kenyon a public health nurse and expat parent to breakfast at the magnificent Kitchenette at Kamergersky Pereulok 6. To a tasty breakfast which included eggs benedict, croque madame, cheese omelette (the best omelette in Moscow said Lucy Kenyon), croissant and pancakes, David and Lucy shared their views on education opportunities available in Moscow.
What education opportunities are available for expat children in Moscow?
David: Schools are available which follow the American curriculum such as the Anglo-American school, the British curriculum as at the International School of Moscow and International Baccalaureate (IB) at the British International Schools. In recent years the English international School in Moscow has opened a second campus, and Atlantic International have opened three new schools. Atlantic International is so far aimed at the Russian and Turkish communities, and is under Turkish management, but I believe that in the future they will refocus themselves more on international families.
How many campuses are there in total now in Moscow?
Lucy: There is the International School of Moscow, also opening a new campus in Angelovo, EIS have two campuses, BIS has nine, Atlantic have three, then there is the Anglo-American school, the Hinkson Christian Academy, and the International School of Tomorrow. Thatâs about it for the English-speaking schools, but Moscow also has a LycÃ©e FranÃ§ais, a German school which follow the French and German curriculums, a Swedish school which goes up to the age of 16, and in the same building on Leninsky Prospect, there is a Japanese, Finnish, Italian and a Hungarian school, so there are about 25 international schools at present in Moscow.Â Several embassies also run their native curricula from their premises.
David: There is very much a pecking order of where parents want to place their children, but at the same time there is a much bigger selection available than people understand.
What about kindergartens?
Lucy: There are a number of kindergartens, set in both the city centre and strategically located near expat residential areas. There is the Montessori Preschool, the Jewish Kindergarten, and there are several bilingual and trilingual preschools. There is Busy Bees at Barrikadnaya, which is very popular, the Americans have their own preschool, there is a pre-school at the International School of Moscow. There is a foundation stage school at the same location on Leninsky Prospect run by a Russian, but which follows a British curriculum. There are a lot of schools, but as with the secondary schools some are in much higher demand because of word of mouth.
All the secondary schools are expensive?
David: You are looking at average starting fees at the best schools of approximately â¬20,000 per annum, or higher.
That equates to the fees of a pretty top-level private school in Britain?
David: A good private Irish boarding school is cheaper than many international schools in Moscow.
So why donât people send their children off to boarding schools in the UK?
Lucy: Because they want to keep their children at home, to keep the family together. One of the things that Moscow does offer is the opportunity to keep your family together rather than having to send children off to boarding school, if this is not right for them.
David: For many 11-14 year olds, the quality of education is the same as what you would receive in Britain. There is no need to go anywhere.
What is the quality of teaching like in these schools? Do they suffer because of a high staff turnover?
Lucy: Most international schools have now addressed this issue. They have looked at the packages that they offer teachers and adapted them to encourage staff to stay. I donât think that staff turnover is as much an issue as it used to be.
David: Iâm from Ireland, where it is difficult to get rid of under-performing teachers. Here, if a teacher isnât up to scratch, he or she is out. The schools here are able to afford to hire better quality teachers, and if there is a problem with a teacher, he or she can be replaced. I tend to look at that situation as being positive.
What are the important issues when trying to choose a school?
Lucy: There are a number of issues. Schooling is the biggest investment that parents make in their childrenâs future. Education is the cause of the most worries for people when they are moving anywhere new, and as David has mentioned you canât just turn up and expect to be given a place at the best schools; there is a shortage of places. But I think it is important for parents to take a step back and ask what kind of personality has their child got, who does he or she associate with best? Would they be better in a structured environment or a situation with vertical streaming, where they would be streamed across a two or three year groups. Both environments are better for some children, but not for all.
Then there is the question of pastoral care, because children who are arriving here are going in with local children who may not understand the issues that accompany the displacement that expat life brings. Some of these children may have different types of emotional baggage. So parents should find out if the school has behaviour and welfare policies, because a child who is used to having an armed body guard sitting outside the school waiting for him or her may have different a very different experience and expectations to a child who comes from a school where they used to walk to school with their mum, for example.
Emotional, not just curriculum issues are really important to consider.
Of course the curriculum is highly important, different curricula teach subjects and skills at different ages – particularly relevant if you are going back to a set exam system or to a country like Germany, Italy, Holland or Belgium, because in those countries, if the child is not up to standard, they will put the child back a year. Although the English national curriculum is quite prescriptive, you do move ahead with your peer groups; but parents should stay informed about the curriculum their child will return to, in order to keep as many options open as possible for their child.
Another thing to be aware of is that it takes about a year for a child to settle back into his native culture, because the emotional experience, academic standards, the level of sophistication of your lifestyle here are all going to be different to that back home. If you come from a non-English speaking country and your child has been attending an English speaking school here, parents have to ask themselves: what is the impact going to be on our childâs progress?
One cause of frustration for parents who cannot get places, or do not want all of their children to go to the same school, is that every school in Moscow seems to observe different holiday dates. This makes it impossible for the family to go on holiday without taking one or other child out of school. None of the half terms coincide, the summer holidays are staggered across a number of weeks. As a parent, I donât know why it is so difficult for schools to coordinate their holidays.
Parents need to understand all of these issues before they place their children. This is difficult for many parents, as what is often uppermost in their minds is: where is everyone else going? What is the best school? If the family is on a compound, the number one concern will be: where is everybody else going so that my children can come back home with the other children and play with their friends?
If a family has a child with special needs, an important issue for parents to consider is the reality of accessibility in Moscow and the lack of disabled facilities. It is a fact that all these schools are privately run and do not have any legal obligation to provide for special arrangements.
Who do you talk to, to find out the answers to these very questions which you have put forward, without actually putting your child in a school?
Lucy: You can talk to one of the relocation companies. They visit the schools regularly with families who are arriving in Moscow, so they have a feel for the schools. However there is nothing better than for the parents themselves to visit the schools, because they know what is comfortable for them and what feels right for their children.
So David, you also play the role of an education consultant?
David: Rather than recommend a particular school, we would recommend families to come over early and visit at least three schools. Very often they will limit their choice to the Anglo American school for example if the child is coming in from an American high school, or to a British school if the child is coming in from a British curriculum-based school in Dubai for example. However we would always encourage parents to be more open in their choice, because parents are not always guaranteed the first choice. Continuity of curriculum is very important as Lucy mentioned, but it is also important to be slightly open in terms of oneâs expectations.
How important is the location of where you live in terms of schools?
David: We would encourage the family to put the school rather than the office as being the primary location. If you live next to your office the child will very likely have a long commute to school.