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Street Life - Samotechny Lane: Russia's new pay-per-class state schools

SAMOTECHNY LANE was suddenly noisy early last Wednesday with the chattering sound of crocodiles of children processing into school. For them, the first day back is a gentle re-entry, as they waste the morning at a bell-ringing ceremony, then give flowers to the teachers and play until home time.

In some provincial towns, this year as last, unpaid teachers rejected the traditions of the "Day of Knowledge" and went on strike. But the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, makes a point of paying state sector wages on time, and teachers in the capital are not as unhappy as their country cousins.

Talking to friends, I had the impression that parents were the ones who really dreaded the new term. "Pay, pay and pay again, that's what we have to do," said Sveta, for whom the last days of August were torture as she struggled to get her 11-year-old son, Fedya, ready for school again.

A few private schools now exist in Russia. The overwhelming majority of parents, however, still send their children to state schools. "The only trouble is," said Sveta, "that we now have to pay for so much that we might as well be educating our kids privately." First she went to a bazaar in the Olym-pic stadium to buy books and atlases, which in Soviet times the school would have provided. "The queue stretched right round the stadium," she said. "I stood there with Fedya for an hour. When we got to the counter, the customers and assistants were so harassed they were throwing books at each other."

Then she took on the crowds in Detsky Mir (Children's World), the department store only slightly less forbidding than the secret police headquarters next door. In an hour, she spent what her husband, an engineer, officially earns in a month (the equivalent of pounds 37.50) on trousers and a jacket.

Fedya hates the return to school, as it coincides with his birthday and there is never enough money left for a present. Luckily, he had a foreign sponsor to buy him a battery-operated, crawling plastic hand made in Taiwan. "How can you waste money on such junk?" Sveta scolded me.

In some schools, not only equipment but also tuition now costs money. Teachers, whose official earnings average 800 roubles (pounds 20) a month, have taken to giving extra private lessons, without which the child cannot hope to succeed.

Another friend, Pavel, said he slipped $50 (pounds 32) a month to a state school teacher last year so his boy could study English. "Nobody gets paid properly. So the traffic cop earns on the side, so that he can pay the teacher, so that she can pay the doctor. And everyone evades tax."

On Tuesday afternoon Fyodor Maskayev, headmaster of Moscow's Middle School Number 174, sat in his study, enjoying the last moments of quiet before the first bell. At his school, he assured me, the poor could still count on a decent education for their children. All compulsory subjects were taught free, although he admitted that pupils over 16 might have to pay for extra coaching to reach college.

Mr Maskayev said basic textbooks were handed out, although parents were expected to buy other books that might be recommended.

This term, Russian children will also have a new civics textbook. It explains why, if a society wants schools with good facilities and motivated teachers, the first lesson citizens must learn is the importance of paying tax.