Public Schools lure rich Russians: Gordonstoun is among the private educators laying out their stall in Moscow - but not for children of the mafia

IN a shabby classroom at Moscow University, a group of Russians gathered round an English headmaster last week to hear about the family atmosphere at his school, watch a video of pupils at work, prayer and play, and hear about the experiences of 18 Russian children already boarding there.

A new generation of rich Russians are educating their children at British public schools - and an organisation called Albion, a group of five prep schools and five boarding schools (including Gordonstoun where Prince Charles was educated), is running a programme to give children of the old Soviet empire access to the elite system that once helped to underpin the British empire.

By the end of the evening in the Moscow classroom, two mothers had signed up their children for Oakley Hall, Cirencester. The headmaster, John Rawlinson, thinks he will have about 30 new clients by the end of his latest recruitment trip.

'I want my Lena to have opportunities which I never had,' said Tatyana Kolosova, one of the mothers who signed a contract with the school.

Mrs Kolosova, dressed in a red silk suit and wearing diamond rings and a gold bracelet, was not put off by the fees of dollars 5,500 ( pounds 3,700) per term - it costs dollars 7,000 for a senior school pupil - though they are a fortune for the average Russian who earns the equivalent of dollars 100 to dollars 200 per month.

Mrs Kolosova is the manager of the main book shop in Tver, just north of Moscow, and her husband has a powerful job involving building and transport. She denies they are super-rich. 'We have a four-room flat and a dacha, but then who does not have a dacha in Russia?' Her husband drives a Mercedes and she goes to work in a second-hand Opel.

'We are working hard and creatively,' she said. 'My husband works 18 hours a day. We are just spending what we have legally earned. We think education is the best investment. To anyone who envies us I can only say, 'May you all work as hard as us and have what we have.' ' There is more than hard work behind some Russians' wealth, however. Some very rich people in Russia today are gangsters, a fact of which Mr Rawlinson and the other headmasters in the Albion organisation are well aware.

The organisation, which has a former British naval attache on its staff, says it screens out the mafia, though it will not go into details about how this is done. 'Let's just say I've met a lot of parents, and you develop an eye,' said Mr Rawlinson.

One family with underworld links was rejected by Oakley Hall but has been accommodated at another British school. 'I had better not say where . . .' said Mr Rawlinson.

Rodney Atwood, headmaster of Box Hill School near Dorking, where seven Russian children are receiving education as a perk from the oil firm that employs their parents, has not yet come across the mafia. 'If I say the problem hasn't arisen, it probably sounds frightfully glib but it really hasn't' (He has, however, had to deal with a a Russian child who had what the school regarded as 'an excessive amount of pocket money'.) Dr Atwood believes that criminals are not generally interested in education. The type of parents he has been meeting are either Anglophiles or those with a high regard for learning and strong ambition for their children.

Certainly these seemed to be the kind of people who came to the meeting at Moscow University after seeing advertisements in the press. They asked serious questions about curricula and health insurance, and took copious notes.

One mother of six children, in dowdy clothes, which suggested she could not be living on more than the average Russian wage, asked whether the schools provided financial help for parents of talented children and limited means. She was taken into another room for a private discussion.

The schools do offer a few scholarships, which relieve but do not entirely remove the parental burden. But Mr Rawlinson warned: 'If your first priority is how cheap the school is, we have a different approach. Our aim is to give an excellent education.'

One Russian child who has already received the benefits of Oakley Hall is nine-year-old Vladimir Maximov. His mother Larissa, who works for an organisation that helps infertile Western couples to adopt children in the former Soviet Union, came to Moscow from her home in Saratov, on the Volga, to tell of her experience of British schooling and to pass on a parcel for her boy. Did it contain cake? 'No, no, I think you have cake in England. It's full of toys,' she said.

Mrs Maximova is satisfied that her main aim in sending Vladimir to Gloucestershire has been fulfilled: he has learned to speak fluent English and absorbed a little of the English, rather than American, culture. 'I have travelled at lot, to Germany, to the United Arab Emirates,' she said. 'But only England has that charm, those old, beautiful buildings. Even the people age beautifully.'

But she will probably not be keeping Vladimir in England beyond this year. For her, the cost of a full education to the age of 18 is prohibitive, and she is anxious that her son should not forget Russia and the Russian language. Her ambition for him is simply that he should fulfil himself. 'Social climbing is not the goal. Let him be a carpenter as long as he is happy, honest and good.'

(Photograph omitted)

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