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Education Suffers All Round Decline in Post-Soviet Years in Russia
By Sergei Blagov
Inter Press Service

    MOSCOW, Apr 25 (IPS) - The Russian government has vowed to honor the Education For All (EFA) commitment, but the country's education system is badly short of funds and faces growing numbers of out-of-school children. .
     Education has been a priority for successive governments. In the Soviet era, accessibility to schools ensured a high literacy rate. Education officials see the maintaining of a high quality of education as vital, the EFA Assessment 2000 report says.
     It says sizeable investments are needed to sustain the Soviet- era standards of education. According to the Audit Chamber of the Russian parliament, the former Soviet Union used to spend up to 10 percent of its Gross Domestic Product to fund education, as compared to the miserable 0.6 percent of the GDP at present.

   Until 1996 the number of schools in Russia continued to grow. Thereafter schools started closing, mainly due to a demographical downturn and also because many were in underpopulated areas.

     In 1998 there were 67,183 schools in the country. By last year, they had decreased to 66,689. The number of students have also shrunk -- from 21.415 million two years ago to 21.171 million in 1999 while the teacher strength has stayed unchanged: 1.728 million in 1998 and 1.725 million in 1999.
   According to the State Committee of Statistics, secondary school drop-out rate is a mere 0.15 percent of the total number of school-age children. However, EFA Assessment 2000 concedes that actual drop-out rates are likely to be considerably higher.
     Alexander Saveliyev, director of the Institute of Education Issues, says the number of drop-outs is only increasing. Saveliyev is one of the authors of EFA Assessment report prepared ahead of the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, Apr. 26-28.
     Russia's economic woes have caused social problems among the youth. Some 70 percent of secondary school students are smokers, 30 percent are regular drinkers, while there are also some 100,000 drug addicts among them, according to EFA Assessment.
    As people become poorer, many families are being forced to entrust their children to the care of state-run boarding schools, which is also affected by the shortage of funds and the long delays in transferring the money.
     Some teachers said they are not paid for months, while the authorities urge them to accept payment in kind like organic fertilizers, rat poison and even coffins.
     Often the new school year starts late in many parts of Russia because thousands of unpaid teachers have refused to go back to work unless their outstanding payments are immediately settled.
    The schools in the rural areas -- some two thirds of the total -- are the worst hit by the strike action, as wage delays there have reached 9-15 months in some schools.
     Last September some 400 schools across Russia stayed shut as 16,000 teachers protested against their miserable working conditions. The year before in the same month some 115,000 teachers had struck work for three days in protest.
     Russia's education system is multicultural. As many as 3,300 schools teach an estimated 79 non-Russian languages. Another 9,000 schools attended by 1.6 million students teach the mother tongues as a second language.
    All children have to go to school in Russia. But a 1996 amendment to the 1992 education bill allowed school authorities to expel trouble making students, which had been impossible in the Soviet-era.
     Most schools are still state-run. Only some 50,000 students go to private schools. However, economic decline has meant that the cash-strapped government has been finding it harder and harder to sustain what was once a vibrant education sector.
     With the situation unlikely to change for a long time to come, the development of private, fee paying institutions has been put forth as one of the solutions for an ailing educational sector.
    UNESCO actively supports the realization of EFA priorities in Russia, notably in terms of consultancy and project management, Igor Danilov, deputy director of UNESCO's Moscow office says.
  It is widely accepted that Russia needs to find its own ways to develop the national education system.
  The promotion of distant education is seen by some as an answer to challenges posed by the country's dispersed population and poor road network. Distant education, based upon new information technologies, offers an opportunity to reach the unreached.
  Some 46,000 of the total 66,689 schools in Russia are in the rural and remote areas, where the average number of students is a mere 150. Needless to say, these remote and forgotten village schools are in most cases unable to provide a decent education
  New mediums like the Internet could be another solution, according to educationists. However they point out that Internet access is out of reach of most rural students and their parents in Russia..
  This is largely because local Internet service providers now charge about half a US dollar for every hour -- beyond the reach of the majority of people who earn an equivalent of 20 to 30 US dollars a month.
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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