Friday, November 14, 2014

Teacher Protests in Russia

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia)In recent months Moscow has witnessed new waves of protests from angry, antagonized and alienated teachers.

              Students and parents are losing patience with Russian officials who are attempting to impose a brutal austerity program. We see forced mergers of schools, cutting of staff levels, benefits, pay and the privatization and almost complete commercialization of education.

              On October 11th in Moscow there was a turn-out of 1500 protesters.This represented one of the biggest demonstrations in education for years! A subsequent demonstration organised by the 'Civil initiative against the commercialization of
education and medicine' drew approximately 300 demonstrators. Although this time the turn out was relatively low, it would be rashly premature to predict support will dwindle away. The anger and the intensity surrounding those issues runs too deep. In fact, many teachers were unaware of this protest as it had not been that well publicised or given enough notice. Nevertheless, the demonstration has helped keep up the momentum of events.

              The mass meeting took place at Lermontov Square near Metro Krasnaya Vorota, under the gaze of a huge statue of the Russian poet Lermontov who stood gazing over the demonstrators with tensely folded arms and great bulging baleful eyes.

              Political parties such as Yabloka, different communist parties and anarchists brought their banners, papers and leaflets to the demonstration. But it was the banners
of the school union 'Teacher', and 'Solidarity' which caught my eye. Many demonstrators had made their own modest placards which they stoically displayed for the next few hours in cold weather.

             I met one physics teacher who told me, 'I'm a pensioner and teacher. This is the first time I have been to a demonstration like this. I have come here because my patience has run out. I don't see why anyone has the right to ruin the future of young children.' When asked 'How long have you taught physics at your school?', she answered 'For forty six years!'

             I told her 'You must have alot of patience.' 
             'It is not just patience. I'm devoted to my job'.

             When I asked a young teacher why she thought the combination of School Number 1089 with 2077 was illegal, she told me, 'Our school has an existing agreement with the state that our school operates according to a special programme for  children. Officials are violating this very agreement by fusing it with another school.'

             The young teacher started to become tense and stuttered a little when a television journalist tried to film her. She was evidently not used to speaking in public. Neither were some of the speakers who took the rostrum. They spoke nervously and not knowing what to say next resorted to chanting slogans, such as 'A free education for all', 'Hands off our state education' and 'I say not just 'Learn, learn and learn, but struggle, struggle and struggle.' The best speeches were those which flowed from bitter experience. One teacher
spoke of how ludicrous it was to ask a low paid teacher who has to support a family, to stay in the class room filling in endless forms and helping organise a school electronic newspaper. 'Who needs this newspaper?

             How can a teacher find the time to do this when he has to work outside the school to supplement his poor wages? 'Speakers repeatedly spoke of rising red tape which is pointlessly straining already overworked teachers and the perceived illiteracy of government officials. 'Let's ask them to show us diplomas and qualifications for carrying out such decisions. Those officials are illiterate!' The officials were viewed as attempting to attack literacy. 'The only literacy those officials understand is how to make money and turn everything into a business. They consider that a school is just a factory and education no more than a conveyor belt'. Sometimes the speeches could become hysterical. 'It is fascist when officials attempt to impose a system on pupils without acknowledging the differences of children'.

             Prince Otto von Bismark got a word in at the meeting!

             A speaker quoted him, 'Wars are first won with teachers and priests and not soldiers'. He might also have mentioned two other quotations, 'Those who don't build schools end up constructing prisons ' and 'Never declare war on Russia'.

             The last quote could be paraphrased as 'Russian officials should not declare civil war against their own citizens.'

             The presence of the independent union, 'Teacher' was significant. This union, which was established in 2011, boasts a membership of 6000 members and have already begun to have found many new branches throughout Russia and seem increasingly confident of organising campaigns against the closure of schools, mergers and unfair dismissals. The union was fishing for potential members amongst the audience and handed me a kind of leaflet promoting their activities.


              For the past four years the Government has intensified the process of rapidly privatising and commercialising the state education sector. As one speaker declared,       'state education is the last domain where much potentially profitable property is still in public hands.' The privatisation of school buildings acts as a magnet for those who crave
wealth at any price. Of course, officials don't call reform privatisation, but use euphemisms such as 'Modernisation', 'Optimisation' and 'reform'. They never 'close down' schools but 'merge 'them with others. Teachers are not made immediately 'redundant' but have their hours ridiculously reduced to being dependent on 'sub standard' earnings!

             Under the term 'Optimisation', approximately 12,000 schools have been closed down throughout Russia over the space of the last four years. As many as 10,000 of those schools were in the countryside. There are many cases where schools are abruptly closed without the proper consultation of teachers, parents or children. One of the reasons for increasing bitterness is the way those closures are carried out. Officials often don't bother to warn, consult and discuss those changes with teachers. Opposition to those changes can lead to illegal dismissals, threats or even imprisonment from corrupt officials.

             But officials are also attempting to find novel ways to make parents pay for what is traditionally a free education. For example, officials declared that any parent that leaves his child in school after school hours will be charged a new fee. Parents are also asked to donate money to repair a broken roof which is the legal responsibility of the council.

             An abortive attempt was made to make the teaching of some school subjects payable until it was withdrawn in the face of indignant parents.


             All those attempts by the government blatantly violates the law of the Russian Federation. According to article 43, 'Everyone has the right to education and it is       guaranteed freely at a pre-school level, general school level as well as further educational level.'

             Another important part of this article stresses how, 'The Russian Federation supports different forms of education and self-education. It does not impose standardized education on everyone.' This point has been lost by Russian officials who wish to erode the identity of 'Intellectual' school, for gifted children from disadvantaged families by merging it with another school with a different way of teaching. As with all mergers, there is often a loss of school staff, not to mention the identity and atmosphere of a school.

              It comes as no surprise to discover that the teachers of those schools perceive those changes as 'an attack on the very identity of the schools.' Some teachers even express fear that the government aims to liquidate the state education system.

              How do officials react to those charges?


              A recent interview with Russian paper 'Kommersant' offers an insight. In one interview on October 23, 2014, Leonid Pechathinkov stated, 'No teachers are going to be made redundant' and 'that schools such as 'intellectual' can still attain grants from the government on a different basis.'

              What those teachers don't understand is 'the simple fact that money does not drop down endlessly from the sky'.

              In his opinion the cost of funding schools such as 'Intellectual' are just too high. The government simply can't afford it.

              'We have a law on the secondary education, but we don't have a law on general tutorial system. Schools like 'Intellectual' operate on a costly tutorial system of a teacher student ratio of one to two.' At today's meeting this figure was challenged.

              Now schools are going to be financed on the basis of how well their students perform on the dubious United States exams and Olympic school competitions. The better the performance, the greater the grant. Any educationalist will inform you this is not the most rational way to fund an educational system. It fails to acknowledge the unique     circumstances of each school. Furthermore, the value of a school can't just be evaluated on the basis of final year exam results, but on many hidden factors such as whether the student who leaves becomes a better moral and spiritual person and develops non academic skills.

               However, it is the insidious philosophy of many officials who believe that the school should be fully commercialised and students turned into soulless consumers which most angers teachers. They ask the public, 'Do you want us to rear a highly materialistic generation of soulless students who care much more about making money than their       friends, family and the suffering stranger?

               One thing is certain is that the government intends to drastically cut the budget on education. They planned to cut the budget from 1% in 2013 to 0.7% by 2016. What
this means is less schools, less specialists for children with special needs and less psychologists. Kindergartens will also be a luxury for more and more families.

               At today's demonstration the arguments that officials don't have the money and can't afford to finance schools is wholly unconvincing. Speakers stated, 'If that is so, why
do those officials have huge businesses not only in Moscow, but in Switzerland? 'Where do they acquire such money?'

               From the local council budget on education?'

               'Why does the local government ask council workers to tear apart a road in Moscow, which is in perfect condition, only to rebuild it with poorer material ? '(because the high quality material for the road is secretly sold off). Why waste money in such an idiotic and irrational way?' 'Why doesn't the local government use this money to maintain
or improve the dire condition of so many schools?'

               It is not the schools which have to justify attaining finance, but the local government which is squandering and plundering financial  resources. It is high time the local government 'opened the books' to the public.

               Unfortunately, attempts to investigate what may be corruption not only seem frustratingly futile, but dangerous. A Journalist who worked for the paper, 'Hammer and Sickle' received a two year jail sentence for accusing a local government official of closing down kindergartens, firing teachers and illegally taking money.

              The journalist, Alena Polyakov, was charged with threatening to kill for political reasons'. The officials took her writing too literary or more likely used her careless words of saying she deserved to be shot as a pretext for jailing the person who had made accusations of corruption against the official. (The head educational official, Alena Sokolskaya has a lot of estate property as well as a registered company in Spain.) Instead of investigating this head official in Klinkova, Russia, they deprive a journalist of freedom! Forget justice!

              No wonder the teachers at the demonstration were bitter and Lermontov looked on as if he too was frowning.

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