Pre-school education in Moscow

pre-school-educationAny expatriate family thinking of moving to Moscow or already here with young children is going to be thinking very seriously about nurseries in Moscow. Finding a place for your child is quite complex, more so than it may seem until parents actually arrive. On the one hand there seem to be an abundance of nurseries available: Russian state ‘Detskiye Sadi’ (kindergartens), private morning-only nurseries and pre-school facilities in the independent schools in Moscow. However there are many factors to be considered which limit parents’ choice: how long they intend to be here, whether they want their children to learn Russian or not, how far they live from the nursery of their choice, whether they value
 a western or are happy with the Russian approach, and of course income levels. Moscow, for the few people who don’t know, is a very long way from being a cheap place. This article is a whistle-stop tour around some of the existing facilities. It is not my intention to write about all providers as that is simply not possible, and the emphasis is on end-users (the parents’) points of views rather than those of the education providers.

pre-school-1Let’s start with the Russian state kindergartens. An expat named
 Jay mentioned that the Russian schools are “very attractive to expats married to Russians. Anybody living here can send their children to them, although the procedure is quite lengthy. You have to go to their website and choose three or four schools in the area you want, and then you have to wait to see 
if your name goes on the list. They aren’t expensive, something like 1,000 roubles a month. But you 
have to give the teachers gifts; a 
bit of money or perfume, buy toys for the school, things like that.
 Despite all of that, these schools are I think pretty professional. The kids can go there all day, they all have a little bed, they can sleep there, they get food. They have psychologists and psychiatrists, they do music, dancing, painting. 
I would be quite happy to send 
my kids to a Russian kindergarten, but they don’t speak English there. Nevertheless, if they can learn Russian, if the expat is going to
 be here for four or five years, it’s
 an advantage for that child in the future. Most of the smaller private kindergartens don’t provide lunches, whereas the Russian schools have canteens. The Russian schools don’t like to accept kids in nappies before the age of two, they like the kids to be clean before you send them, they don’t really like to change nappies.”

The state kindergartens sound great, but actually getting your child enrolled into one is not as straightforward as it may seem. Brit Chloe Ogilvie who has been here for three years has experienced a veritable odyssey trying to do this. In her own words: “Because we knew that we are going to be here for quite a long time, possibly for another seven or eight years, our approach was that we wanted our son to integrate more
; into the Russian system. We think that learning to speak Russian as a Russian does, and not as a foreign language is a real advantage. The world is an international place now. But neither of us speak Russian, and the task of signing up for Russian state education was not easy.”

pre-school-kids1“When we moved to Frenzenskaya area from Tverskaya we took our son out of a lovely nursery called Sad Sam’s where we were originally. We 
put our child’s name on the government nursery waiting list, and then met the local administrator and presented a lot of paperwork, such as birth certificate, a letter from my husband’s work saying that his job is long-term and so on. We were told that there is a separate list for Russians and a separate list for non-Russians. We realised that the administrator holds all the power. Every time we approached her we realised just how much of an outsider one is here. The impression we got was that she was telling us that Russian children are more important. At least there was no attempt to hide it. I was thinking the trouble people would get in if that sort of thing happened at home.”

“As it happens, there was one really amazing government-run nursery kindergarten behind our building, and I knew somebody who sent her child there and had
 a really good experience. I met the headmistress and she said that she’d love to have our child here, that we have lots of places. When we went back to the administrator after meeting the headmistress, she told us that we had no chance of getting into that school because there were too many Russians further up the list, and that we shouldn’t even bother waiting. So we asked her to suggest some other schools in the area. The first one she suggested was quite a long way away. I was pregnant at the time, winter was coming on and walking twenty-
five minutes with a toddler every morning was no fun. The school itself had no outside area, it was very small inside and I thought that this
 is ridiculous, but I had to be careful, I didn’t want to drop down any places on the list. The administrator also suggested a school for the visually impaired, which encouraged us to develop our sense of humour.”

pre-school-kids2“Then we found another state nursery not too far away and our son went there. But he became more morose by the day. We realised he was being isolated because he is a foreigner and didn’t speak Russian, 
it was probably the teacher’s fault as this was her first teaching job, rather than a systemic problem. Teachers don’t get paid an awful lot here and there is a high staff turnover. Then we realised there were real problems because our son was experiencing isolation and wasn’t playing with anybody. After an incident when our son was supposed to have bitten another pupil, the teacher told us that he had to leave the school. Another school across the road was suggested. By this time I was really skeptical, so we decided that the experiment was over. Then I still had to find him another nursery, so we were back to square one.”

Chloe’s son was finally offered a place at the state nursery where she wanted him to go originally, but it mornings-only. She will now from September be taking her son to the Russian nursery in the mornings and Busy Bees nursery in the afternoons, which is a long way away. Lunch will be eaten on the way. Chloe is hoping that her son will be admitted to the afternoon sessions at the Russian school sooner rather than later.

Perhaps the biggest issue here is that if one parent is Russian, the child will be able to handle the atmosphere in Russian nurseries much more easily, and of course that parent will be able to handle the local administrator on an equal playing field. The second point is that Russian teaching methods are different from western equivalents. As Chloe said: “All of my friends who have their children at Russian kindergartens speak Russian. We were like fish out of water and we approached it as if it was the British system, and that was rather stupid of us. Even when you get your child into a Russian nursery, there are so many rules and regulations which are all given out in Russian, which you have to be able to respond to. An American friend of mine has a child who is left handed, and they made that child eat with her right hand. So you have to be careful to get the right school. It is surprising that the choice is so small for a city that is trying to attract so many people.”

When you look at the lists of private nurseries there seem to be many choices, but when it comes 
to finding somewhere near your home and within your price range, the options are limited. Some expats complain that a large number of expensive private Russian nurseries are opening up, which appear to
 be geared to attracting foreign children, but their real aim is to attract high-level Russians.

There are however a few reasonably priced nursery schools where the majority of children 
are foreigners and the teaching is carried out mostly by Russians, but because the majority of children are foreign, the predominant language spoken is English and the teaching
 is western, Busy Bees and Sad Sam’s are two of these places. As Jay mentioned: “These places attract a lot of expats. They are reasonably priced.” But there are drawbacks, they are mostly mornings-only, it just depends what people want. Your child can be educated in both English and French if you wish, for example at Petit Cref, or in other languages at kindergartens attached to some of the embassies, but you have to be prepared to pay for what is in Moscow a luxury.”

A key factor is transport. As Jay mentioned: “Most expatriates that I know like to live either near a metro, near a kindergarten or near a school because with Moscow traffic being so bad, you can waste hours travelling each day. That’s why the small private nurseries are so popular, because they are in the centre.”

For those parents who can afford it, and who do not want their children to integrate into the Russian system because they are not going to be here very long, or for other reasons, there are some superb facilities available in Moscow. The big advantage is that pre-school classes at the school of your choice make it easier for children to get into the junior school or ‘year one’ of that school. Contrary to what many expatriate parents think, getting into the school of your choice here in Moscow is subject to availability of places and is not a free for all. Most schools now assess children at entry. “We have very high expectations, and those children who have been through our nursery find it easier to access year one at a higher level. It is not automatic entry in our school, children are assessed,” commented Clair Doubleday, site leader at the lower school of the International School of Moscow. “We provide a really full educational experience through play at a young age. We
 start teaching reading and writing early at ISM and never underestimate pupil’s abilities.” Curriculums vary from school to school. At ISM, the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum is followed for example.

Those expats who are working for large international companies may have been offered relocation counseling before they arrive, and may have already decided to find
 a flat near the independent school of their choice, in which case many of the problems mentioned in this article will have be solved before they arrive. The number of expats, however, in this fortunate position is not growing as fast as the middle of category of parents who want the very best for their children but are looking at other options.

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