Soviet school education as summarised by my dad

I have enjoyed following many debates about education since I joined Twitter and begun reading blogs. To get a bit of perspective on some of the things being discussed, I’ll sometimes ask my parents for their perspective and about their experience. They both went to school in the USSR, my dad also completed his degree in Leningrad.

I asked my dad about his memories of the Soviet education system. What strikes me is the importance of subject disciplines within the programme of study, and yet the fact that maths wasn’t a subject per se. Also, the fact that the best elements came from the Prussian gymnasium system is telling. And there’s an interesting reflection on a very specific type of group-work. Here’s what he wrote as I translated it (original Russian from his email to me is at the bottom of the post):

The successes of the Soviet Education system in the post-war period (from 1945 to the end of the 70s) were predicated on the inevitable need to maintain the military-technological race with the West. A mass of literate engineers and technicians was needed, able to read technical drawings, make basic calculations, master some sort of machine or mechanism. And the Soviet regime did not spare resources and effort on this – which was not so difficult to achieve in a country where the average standard of living was indeed very low. And the teaching profession, despite the low wages, was very prestigious – as opposed to today.
Until the end of the 40s, the basic provision of secondary education was seven years of school – to 14 years old, after which the majority of teenagers went to work or to a specialised technical school (tekhnikumy), either daily or in the evenings. From the end of the 40s, the basic provision expanded to a ten year model to the age of 17 (in towns, not in the villages). From the fifth to the 10th classes the sciences (hard and natural sciences) were taught very thoroughly – in more detail than in the West – and this is something that the immigrants from Russia were convinced of when they found themselves in Israel or in the USA in the 70s – so their level of preparation in the hard sciences turned out to be, as a rule, higher than their peers.
For instance Soviet schools did not have a subject called ‘mathematics’. Until the fourth class you were taught arithmetic, and from the fifth to the tenth class you had separate lessons in algebra, geometry, to which were added trigonometry in the final two years as a separate subject. Further sciences were taught as distinct subjects – physics, chemistry, biology and human anatomy, and even astronomy in some schools. In the cities, nearly every school you had physics and chemistry lab equipment – separate spaces with necessary equipment, setup, instruments etc. In some schools you even had biology labs. Of course I’m talking here about European and Siberian parts of the USSR, In central Asia the situation was worse – there they had fewer ten-year school programmes.
The educational system was founded on principles developed in Germany in the 19th century and widely adopted in the Russian empire. The German approach to education is systematic (and regular). In each subject the emphasis is made on each subject’s place in the universal order of things. That is to say on the subject-specific theory and foundations that belong to it, and how it differs from other fields of knowledge. For example, what does physics concern itself with as opposed to chemistry, or chemistry from biology. Secondly, the curriculum [literally – programme of study] is detailed and cumulative, designed over a 3-4 year sequence. Thirdly, the responsibility for the fruits of his efforts lies with the individual efforts of each pupil – and in order to strengthen this responsibility exists a system of assessed work and exams – both oral and written.
In the 20s and 30s the Bolsheviks still experimented with school education. For example, a so-called ‘brigade method’ was introduced, when one or another aspect of knowledge had to be mastered not by the individual, but by a group of students, or a ‘brigade’. Classes were grouped into small groups of three to five students, each group was given a separate task, and the marks were given collectively, and not to any individual student. But what would you do with the lazy ones? After the war, this method was rejected. In an unofficial way (for the fifth – tenth classes), the Gymnasium system of pre-revolutionary Russia was restored. At its core: cramming, obligatory use of summaries of each subject, obligatory homework, random marking of homework during the lesson which was graded, written coursework every three or four weeks or at the end of every term (of which their were four not three), exams in certain subjects at the end of each school year – i.e. in June. What’s more, in algebra, geometry and physics the exams were written exams. If you failed your exams you had to resit them in September.
That’s about all that I can remember right now. Pose me questions and I’ll try to answer them in detail as much as possible.

Some context for The Brilliant Club Inaugural Conference

When we began our work at The Brilliant Club, it was part-project, part stab-in-the-dark. Jonny Sobczyk and Simon Coyle, who founded the organisation, ran the pilot at the school where I was teaching at the time and, taken by the idea and the possibility of setting up an actual organisation of our own, I decided to join them in the venture. We attained charity status in early 2012 and, just over 2 years on, are very proud of the scale and quality of the work we are doing across 4 regions of the UK (London & South East; Midlands; East of England; North East England).

The problem that we exist to solve is a very specific one within the broader debates and activity around social mobility: at highly selective universities the number of students from non-selective state schools, and in particular from the poorest backgrounds, is disproportionately low. The Sutton Trust provides a swathe of research on the issues, slicing through the data in a number of different ways – here is one particularly pertinent example about uni progression rates by individual school – and also making recommendations. The Higher Education Funding Council for England also analyses students’ secondary to HE progression rates. In 2010, when setting up The Brilliant Club, we looked at their report on trends in youth HE participation. A few key trends and findings stick out for me personally:

  • In 2010, at the 25 most academically selective universities in England, only 2% (approximately 1,300 pupils each year) of the student intake was made up of Free School Meal pupils, compared with 72.2% of other state school pupils, and just over a quarter of the intake (25.8%) from independent schools. This proportion may be changing, but only slowly and with huge regional variation.
  • 80% of disadvantaged young people – those from low HE participation neighbourhoods – live in the vicinity of a highly-selective university, but only 1 in 25 of these disadvantaged young people attends such a university (compared to 1 in 4 from the highest HE participation neighbourhoods). (Link here, page 5)

Within these two research findings, we had a defined problem and a potential solution: given the proximity of schools serving low participation communities and universities, there would surely be a way of building good links between them. What was needed was a scalable way of doing so that focused on meaningful academic experience to develop realistic aspirations and improve attainment, giving timely and accurate advice, and creating a precedent for progression to highly selective HE courses for pupils from low-participation backgrounds. Of course there is a huge amount of widening participation and fair access activity already ongoing – it is a growing part of what universities do (look at the latest WP budgets for next year here). We wanted to add to the effort as the problem is big enough to warrant multiple solutions and collaborations.

We have found that the PhD and post-doctoral research community is perfectly placed to be this link. Our PhD tutors – selected at an assessment centre that looks for their ability to communicate and their motivation for working with young people – have a wealth of subject expertise, a passion for their area of study, extensive experience of universities (and in many cases the world of work). They design courses for small groups of pupils that the school will select to take part in the programme. The pupils are selected using a mixture of contextual factors (such as eligibility for FSM and parental history of HE) and teacher discretion. The courses are based on an aspect of the PhD tutor’s research and will be categorised as ‘Arts & Humanities’, ‘STEM’ or ‘Social Science’. From the pupils’ point of view, it is like being taught a university module with a final assignment at the end that will be graded in a university-style (1st, 2.1 etc.). All courses include trips to our partner universities. We work with Year 5s upwards because we believe that starting the conversation with pupils when they are younger helps give them time to inform themselves about progression to university before it becomes necessary for them to make any decisions. At crucial transition points between key stages, starting young helps equip pupils with some very important perspectives on where their education can take them.

I want it to be normal for academics to be seen in schools and for pupils from all backgrounds to think of university – including the most highly-selective courses and institutions – to be their right and entitlement. It is rewarding, therefore, when the conversation with the pupils we work with moves on from “what is university?” to “which course would I enjoy the most?” to “I wonder whether I would want to do a PhD myself?”. And at the same time, it is incredibly rewarding to see what our PhD tutors get from it. As a lapsed teacher, I didn’t quite realise initially how exciting it is for an academic to teach their particular area of research as opposed to a general ‘introduction to…’ undergraduate course. Moreover, the Research Councils of the UK have a strategy of Public Engagement that encourages researchers to take their specialisms to non-expert audiences. Some of our PhD tutors have gone on to become teachers (including through – the new ITT partnership launching in September). Others have remained as teachers and researchers in academia or moved to industry. We hope their professions are enriched by a more detailed understanding and experience of the state education sector.

The Brilliant Club Inaugural Conference will be taking place at King’s College London on Thursday 24th July, bringing together academics, teachers, widening participation professionals and third-sector organisations like our own. It is fully booked, but we have a livestream from the main lecture theatre which will capture the panel debates and keynotes. At this conference we hope to begin to answer the question:

How can universities and schools help pupils from low-HE participation backgrounds secure places and succeed at highly-selective universities?

Have a read of the programme and take a look at our livestream here. If you’re on Twitter then please get involved @BrilliantClub and on #BrillWP14

Finally, can you find your school on this POLAR 3 dataset? How likely young people are to participate in HE varies across the UK mapped out by small local area.