When you are born into a Russian family you stay with your mum while she is on her maternity leave and if she decides to return to work, you go to nursery (kindergarten). Nurseries are free with the entry age around two years old. Groups of cute toddlers can always be seen trotting slowly in the playground of a nursery being herded around by their teacher.
Yet, it’s not uncommon for a Russian woman to choose her children over a professional career. In this case you don’t go to nursery but instead stay at home with your mum. Hooray! Sadly I wasn’t that lucky. My Dad left when I was 5 and Mum had to work to provide for the family. Nevertheless, my lovely grandparents would sometimes ‘rescue’ me from the nursery just before the nap hour.
At the age of seven you enter primary (elementary) school. State schools are always free with occasional fees being collected to pay for new books or do up a classroom. I remember being very excited for my first day at school which is always the first working day of September. Smart looking girls and boys arrive at school with their parents on this important day and give a bouquet of flowers to their new teacher.
In my first year mum chaperoned me to school and helped with homework. She also signed me up for dancing and drawing lessons. In fact, every Russian kid will take up an extracurricular activity. Quite a few of my friends took piano lessons or English while others did sports.
There wasn’t much bullying in primary school. I only remember how one boy liked me so much that he kept teasing me by tugging at my braids. A very common way for a little Russian boy to express endearment towards a girl in the ‘olden days’. I guess modern kids would express love by liking a picture on Instagram or sending a pop-up photo on Snapchat. When I got to secondary school I got bullied quite a bit, especially during the time when I had to wear braces. On reflection, I’d much prefer to be homeschooled, but alas it’s not at all popular in Russia and is frowned upon by local communities.
In Russian schools ‘years’ (grades) are called ‘classes’. You start in class one and finish school being in class 11 or 12. After 4 years you enter class 5 meaning you are now a secondary (middle) school student. Once you’ve reached class 9 you have a choice of leaving school and going to college or stepping into two years of sixth form (high school). Apart from the curriculum, and a couple of new teachers, there isn’t much difference between secondary school and sixth form. All lessons still take place in the same building with the same teachers you are used to. Basically, you enter the same building at the age of seven and leave it at the age of 17 or 18.
Russian schools are very sport heavy. During winter you do lots of winter sports such as skiing and ice-skating. I was very good at cross-country skiing and took first place once in a school competition. Indoors we played a lot of volleyball, football and basketball. In some schools tennis classes are part of the curriculum too.
At the end of school, in year 11, all pupils have to take exams. Russian exams are similar to the British A-levels where you can choose the subject you want to sit. Although maths and the Russian language are compulsory for all. Based on the results, you can get into a very prestigious university for free. The worst-case scenario – you’ll have to pay for your education and perhaps pursue an undesirable degree.
In May all high school female graduates dress up in a white apron over a black dress to celebrate a so-called “Last Bell”. This is me wearing the “Last Bell” outfit in the picture below. In hindsight, it’s a really cool outfit but perhaps a bit too racy for a school kid. Well, despite this, it remains a very popular tradition and schools are not going to abandon this for many years to come.
Russian schools are very challenging – a lot of homework, tests and exams, and super strict teachers. All subjects are taught to a very high level, except for foreign languages. Most schools wouldn’t have a native speaker to teach kids real English, French or German unless we are talking about a special school for foreign languages.
In all honesty, would you consider studying at a Russian school and wearing the iconic outfit for your graduation? 🙂