A battle for 6-year-olds
It was amidst an unbearable heat, in July. There was no air conditioning at home, but all the windows were opened instead. Nigar, 5, gave an absent looked to the cherry trees outside the window and then stoops her head back to the notebook: she was supposed to do the sums. Being a family friend, I volunteered to help her with math and that’s exactly what I was doing throughout the summer, from 5 till 6 p.m., on the daily basis. Meanwhile, there were some questions continuously running through my head: why should a 5-year-old child be treated that bad? And if that European lyceum, where Nigar’s mom is willing to enroll her, is so good, they why can’t the teachers themselves teach the children in class how to count backwards and add the primes? Is that a new trend to undergo two rounds of exams in order to be admitted to the first grade?
The genius schools
There is an entrance exam for children in the majority of Baku schools. The Education Ministry officials avoid making comments for press in this regard, but one of them, who asked not to be named, told us that exams ‘are not always legal, but quite understandable,’ “That’s because competitions in schools are very high and some school principals believe, they are entitled to refuse to admit a child if the latter has failed to pass the interview.
In addition, for admission to a school for gifted children, lyceums, gymnasiums, it’s necessary to make sure that a child’s ability is above average, since the curriculum in such institutions is difficult and a child should cope with it.
Here’s the deal: the European lyceum is a school for gifted children with development rate above the average, as the school’s website reads.
seem quite clear – if your child wasn’t born a genius, just don’t torture him/her and send him/her to an ordinary school. But here we are facing another problem: almost all schools in Baku center, that in Soviet times used to be ordinary educational institutions, after the country’s independence have been one by one turning into lyceums and ‘educational centers’. However, they are often no much different from other schools.
Azerbaijan has a standard curriculum, as well as the textbooks. Despite that, the schools # 6, 132/134, 160, 23 are considered ‘prestigious’, which often implies that ‘they aren’t as bad as the rest of the schools.’ These school-lyceums are entitled to conduct ‘entrance exams’ in their own way, which every year produces a crowd of disgruntled parents, whose children have failed to pass the tests. Ordinary schools, that are required to admit everyone indiscriminately, are sometimes also practicing test exams, referring to a great number of applicants per place.
Why is lyceum better for a child?
Leyla Mammadova, the mother of Jamal, 6, says: “We were preparing for enrollment in the European lyceum this year. We took the school tutor’s classes for quite long. My son answered all the questions, but he wasn’t admitted, because when he’d been asked to draw a man, he couldn’t fit the legs in the picture. He was refused, saying that he had allegedly violated a sense of proportion.
Little Said’s mother is a bit upset: “We were very seriously preparing for the school exam, but there were questions that we didn’t expect. At the exam the child was asked to name the countries that are bordering Azerbaijan. A six-year-old child!
Once I asked Sabina, Nigar’s mother, why she didn’t want just to enroll her child in the school according to the place of residence. Sabina is that type of women, who would sacrifice herself for the sake of children. That is, her hair is always pinned up in a bun, she’s been wearing the same jeans for three years, but her children attend swimming pool and music classes, and the elder son, Anar, heroically enrolled in that long-rumored European lyceum after attending a two-year tutor training. Sabina gave me a blank stare and answered: “Well, if Anarchik enrolled there, why Nigar can’t do that? She’s a pretty clever girl too. I understand that it’s difficult to her, but she’s struggling for her knowledge!
There is a yard of an ‘ordinary’ Baku school under my apartment’s windows. This yard represents an asphalted square of land, with the plastic bottles inevitably scattered here and there. A football game starts there after 2 p.m. I’ve got the double-pane windows, but if I open the window, my life’s background would be the continuous cries – ‘Oh, shit!’ and some other, stronger expression. This is an ordinary school and it is legally bound to admit all the children according to the place of residence upon the attainment of the age of 6. There has never been any selection procedure there. When listening to the children, who are playing in the school yard day by day, you begin to realize, why there are often 30 children per class in central schools: the parents try to ensure that their offsprings study in a more or less ‘decent’ group (even if it just seems so), at a warm, clean and freshly repaired school.
It will be too late at the age of 7
So, at the age of 5 (5 years and 10 months) Nigar could tell the difference between the continents and the parts of the world, between the mammals and the reptiles, and she could show where the human lungs, kidneys, liver and spleen, are. She also knew by heart the anthem and some of the key dates in Azerbaijan’s history.
The basic reading and writing skills are required in order to be admitted to school by default, no matter whether it’s a prestigious school or not. The primary concern of every Bakuvian preschooler’s mom is that her child won’t be late with these basic skills (and, God forbid, be lagging behind the relatives and friends’ kids).
Our source at the Education Ministry explains it by the fact that there are too many children in the classes nowadays and teachers can’t give the basic knowledge to 30-40 students at once, they simply won’t be able to handle an unprepared class.
The newly appointed Education Minister, Mikayil Jabbarov, is a proponent of any possible development of pre-school education. As he stated in his recent interview, the pre-school education currently covers just about 25% of children, while this figure is projected to reach 70%. There is a lack of daycare facilities nowadays and the conditions in the state-run ones are far from being perfect. As for the private ones, they cost as much as a rental fee of a single-bedroom apartment in the suburbs.
The pre-school preparation courses (paid) were so far created in 87 schools in the academic year 2014-2015. There will be as many as 138 of them next year. After completing the courses, a child may be enrolled in school without taking any exams, because he/she often attends a future teacher’s classes.
Most of the parents avail themselves of the services provided by these groups, but there are also those, who believe, the school groups are a type of institutionalized corruption: sort of, if you want to enroll without any problems, you should pay for the courses.
Nigar was the eldest in the group at the preparatory courses she attended. In these days, Bakuvians tend to send their kids to school as early as possible. Is it a right thing to do? According to Umay Akhundzadeh, a psychologist, who has been involved in school admission procedure for many years, such a little child isn’t ready to study. Even if his/her mental development is far ahead of his/her age, a physical exhaustion may occur in 1-2 years: “Even a few months may be of great importance for a child’s development at such age.
What to do if a child doesn’t want to be a genius?
So, the X-day finally came. On the eve, Nigar read the textbook from cover to cover for the last time. Sabina was drinking valerian drops and nervously dusting the apartment. When I came to see them off to the exam in the morning, both of them looked exhausted: Nigar, dressed in brand new and well-pressed clothes, with a perfect parting and neat braids, and Sabina, wearing a colorful long skirt. The ancient jeans had been torn up in the washing machine the other day.
When travelling in taxi, they repeated the multiplication table. There was a crowd of same miserable and anxious parents outside the lyceum. You should have seen how Sabina admonished her daughter before the exam, as if she was sending her to save the world.
As a result, Nigar failed at the exam. Apparently, she just became very nervous and she answered the questions worse than she could, and then she stopped talking at all. It’s another frequently discussed problem: isn’t it hard for a child to ‘come before the examiners’?
According Umay Akhundzadeh, an interview should in no way be held in the form of examination, it should be just a friendly conversation, even a game: “All the factors should be taken into account: including the number of children and adults in the room. If the environment there is too formal and strict, a child may simply shrink into oneself and stop responding. Even a pose in which the examiner is sitting is important- it’s better if he/she is sitting beside the child, rather than in front of him/her.
Sabina’s grief had no bounds. Meanwhile, Nigar suddenly claimed, she wouldn’t enroll in any school at all. She became obstinate and irritated, she often woke up at night. That set Sabina on the alert: there was apparently something wrong with the kid. It was decided to turn to a psychologist; to that very psychologist, who a year ago had told Sabina straightforwardly that Nigar had no exceptional abilities and that her place was in a regular school with an ordinary curriculum. Sabina had been terribly offended then, but now the situation changed.
As a result of consultations it was decided to leave the kid alone for a while. Whereas one month later, Nigar was enrolled in another central school, which is also the ‘Lyceum’. Firstly, the school was just entitled the ‘Lyceum’, there weren’t any special enrollment requirements. Secondly, Sabina decided to resort to a traditional Azerbaijani method: she just found an acquaintance, whose acquaintance was a good friend of the school principal.
Thus, before the interview, the mother and daughter were sitting quietly in the queue, with their legs stretched, chatting about some trifle things, while other “applicants’ parents around them were anxiously trying to figure out, what the questions would be: “Do they ask about the electric appliances?
During the interview, Nigar was requested to ‘identify’ a few letters, to count to 20 and name 10 fruits, which she managed quite successfully. I think, it was her absolutely calm mom, sitting beside her, rather than the useful acquaintances, who actually helped her. ‘What a clever girl!’ the examiners melted.
Now, Nigar is already in the grade 2 of the prestigious lyceum. Sabina is wearing one and the same jeans seven days a week, she has no time to buy a new pair. The lyceum turned out to be focusing on languages, i.e., as many as two foreign languages are taught there from the very first grade. Nigar has excellent marks: having realized that the school teachers wouldn’t teach her anything (there are 40 students per class), Sabina hired the tutors. When asked, what exactly made this school a lyceum, Sabina would resignedly shrug her shoulders and helplessly reply: ‘Perhaps a US$100 worth uniform. Though, damned if I know.