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“Political ideas come and go, the children stay.”

Visit to a Russian special school

by Maria Koch

In Current Concerns No. 20 we covered a visit to a large children’s home in Peterhof, near St. Petersburg. We, a group of pedagogues, remedial teachers and social education workers, were also allowed to visit a public special school in Peterhof. We wanted to learn something about how disabled children are supported and educated in the Russian school system.

Coffee and cake, fruit and pastries – we had a warm welcome in the headmistress’s office in the morning. Mrs. Viktoria Gnezdilova and some of her colleagues took the time to inform us in detail about the school and to answer our questions. We learnt that this school is attended by 500 students. We were amazed: such a large school with children with learning disabilities and behavioural problems - how can this be possible? In Switzerland and Germany, we are not used to special schools with so many pupils. Some of the children come from Children’s Home No. 1 , but most of them live at home – at addresses throughout the entire city - and come to school by school bus or by public transport. The pupils are taught in 32 classes. These are classified according to mild, moderate and severe disability.

Compulsory examinations and preparation for life

In terms of content, students learn the same subject matter as students from mainstream schools up to 5th/6th grade. In the subjects of mathematics and Russian, they even take part in the obligatory examinations which are taken by all regular Russian students. They are only granted half an hour of additional time. After school they are prepared for their work. As we already knew from our visit to the home, the companies are prepared and even obliged to train special school pupils, and here too, we are told that they do it with pleasure because they have had good experiences with these pupils. The pupils usually do a simplified apprenticeship (certificate apprenticeship) in craft professions such as baker, caretaker, butcher, car mechanic, hairdresser, or they become salesmen and logisticians. This spectrum corresponds more or less to the one in which also our weaker pupils learn a profession, be it that they have been integrated into the mainstream school or that they have attended a small class or special school. In any case, great importance is attached to finding a follow-up solution for all pupils, so that they will learn to master their lives independently.
We were guided through the entire large school building. Many class doors were open to us, and we were able to observe class sequences, inspect sports lessons and see pupils at their manual training. The classrooms were equipped in a light, friendly and functional way, even including the latest technology such as computers and beamers. On the walls were student works and illustrative material for the curriculum. We attended mathematics and Russian lessons at various school levels. Always with us was Elena, our translator, who also translated the course of the lessons and the dialogues between teachers and pupils, so that we understood very clearly what was covered in terms of content. Everywhere the lessons took place calmly, in a good mood. The students were lively and of a great variety, like everywhere else, but they did pay attention.

Methodically-didactically reflected teaching

We were struck by the well-reflected didactic-methodical structure of how the subject material was taught. From the easier to the more difficult, from the simple to the more complex, from the descriptive to the more abstract, everything was well adapted to the pupils’ abilities. Classroom instruction took place in all the lessons we watched, the pupils were learning together, the teachers – by the way all chic and elegantly dressed – were holding the classes, in close and caring relation to the pupils, calmly and consistently, always focused on the subject. We saw lessons with questions and development; the pupils tried to find solutions to a problem in guided sequences. In the practice phase they partly worked together in groups. The remedial educators among us were struck by the relatively high level of this material for pupils with learning disabilities. For example, the second graders already spoke in mathematically correct technical language, using terms such as addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. On the wall there is a schematic representation of these operations with the corresponding technical terms. In class, the pupils work with the help of this representation.
Of course, we are not able to judge the status of the pupils of this school or even of the special schools “in Russia” after this visit, but this glimpse suggests that the level in mathematics and language (Russian) is indeed remarkable.

Interaction with each other and in the school building

As I have already mentioned, the pupils were attentive and kept on task. We did not notice any disciplinary problems in the classes apart from the fact that one or another boy talked to his neighbour or looked out of the window. And what did it look like in the corridors of a special school with 500 pupils? During the breaks the pupils moved around the house, individually or in groups, chatting, laughing, curious about the visitors. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Some pupils wore school uniforms, completely or partly; others were dressed according to personal taste. We learnt that school uniforms are the norm in the first class, and voluntary from the second year on. Some pupils go on wearing them, some wear them only partly, others not at all. The school building is small for the many pupils; every room is made use of. Nevertheless, we neither noticed any scuffles, nor graffiti or vandalism, as we unfortunately often meet them in German comprehensive or hotspot schools.

From school life to world history

One room in the school building is dedicated only to history. The responsible teacher showed us the room and explained his concept of introducing pupils to history: Events concerning the development of the school and school life are presented on display boards and are related to events describing the history of the city, the region and the country. In this way, the children and young people are introduced to the history of their home, their region and their country. They feel attachment to their homes an insight into historical contexts and developments, from their personal surroundings to great history, and they take pride in achievements.

More pupils with special needs

We were generously served a sumptuous and delicious lunch in one of the classrooms. Between soup and main course arose interesting and sometimes surprising conversations. We learnt that the number of pupils with special needs is increasing. When asked for the reason, Mrs. Gnezdilova listed some developments surprisingly similar to those in our countries:
More prematurely born children survive due to better medical possibilities. This is also the case with us. Babies born too early often suffer from a mental impairment or abnormal development.
According to the headmistress, there are more and more problems in the families, also because parents are less attentive. In addition, the tradition of the school has been interrupted: In the past there was more time to cover the ground of one matter thoroughly; today only parts of an issue are dealt with, then the class moves on to the next problem. This leads to increasing and more complicated learning difficulties. The causes of increasing learning difficulties generated in families and in school also resemble developments in our countries. It would be worth going into this matter more closely – a reason for a follow-up visit that we are already looking forward to.

More boys than girls

Moreover, we learnt that also in Russia more boys than girls attend a special school. This has also been blatantly visible in our country for years. In another context, we learnt that in Russia, like in Germany, girls generally learn better and achieve higher school-leaving qualifications than boys. Why so? And are the reasons in both countries comparable? And what can be done to promote boys more? Obviously, these questions are open and invite discussion.
  As we walked through the school, we noticed that we hardly met any male teachers. The headmistress confirmed our impression: Even in Russia there are more female than male teachers. She also believes that more men in school would be good for the pupils. We are familiar with this discussion, too.
  We reached the inevitable question of inclusion while eating our dessert. We learnt that this issue is also intensely discussed in Russia. Mrs. Gnezdilova was of the opinion that it is problematic if a child attends a school where it is is not able to follow. She said that inclusion had been tried in Moscow, and that the attempt had failed, that it had been abandoned. “Political ideas come and go, the children stay,” the headmistress concluded pragmatically.
We hope that she is right. A few months later we heard that inclusion is now being introduced compulsory in the Vladimir region. This question, too, calls on us to keep up the discussion.

Grounding in one’s own culture

After dinner we were invited to enjoy a play performed especially for us. It was an old Russian fairy tale with folk costumes and corresponding music. As visitors from Switzerland and Germany we realised, like in the children’s home before, that children and young people are introduced to life by fostering folklore and the culture of their homeland naturally and with pride. This is generally lacking in our countries, in Germany even more than in Switzerland. Music from the Anglo-Saxon cultural sphere is preferred, or multi-cultural festivals are organised. There is nothing to be said against getting to know other cultures, but should adolescents not be rooted in their own culture first in order to explore the world from there? Another question worth being raised.
It was an intensive day, we were allowed interesting insights, we still have many questions. We are grateful for the great hospitality and openness that was shown to us and we hope very much for a continuation next spring.    •

1    see CC No. 20, pp.6 [https://www.zeit-fragen.ch/en/numbers/2018/no-20-10-september-2018/visit-to-a-russian-childrens-home.html]