Schools scaring parents by telling them that there might not be ‘enough space’ for their children next year" />

Op-ed: Why are five-year-olds being forced into first grade in Azerbaijan?

Schools scaring parents by telling them that there might not be ‘enough space’ for their children next year

We eagerly awaited the opening for registration of school preparatory courses. I often spoke with my son about how he’d get ready for first grade, what kind of teacher he’d have and how he’d make new friends.

The main issue was the choice of school, given that after their prep courses, children generally go to the school under which the preparatory schools function. Baku schools generally enroll children that have already gone through their prep schools. We looked at the neighborhood schools, received information about the teachers and, well, we were naive and careless.

We were only able to register online – it’s been like that for three years now. More precisely, we thought we could. But as things turned out, my son won’t be going to prep school.

And that’s because he was born on 29 December 2012.

Recently, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Education made parents especially happy with the following law: children that are five years old will go to school without taking exams that confirm their readiness for studies at this age.

We thought that the law would make life easier for parents and children. If your child is five years old, but he or she is ready for school, and you want him or her to get into first grade as soon as possible and there are no tests to be taken, well, that’s great, isn’t it?

It’s not. It turns out that officials have decided to practically force all five-year-olds into first grade.

While registering children for preparatory courses this year, the system only accepts children who were born between 1 January and 31 December 2013. Children who are just a day older are sent to first grade.

Thus, children who were born in 2012 but are still five years old, and who will only turn six in the middle of the school year, are ‘too old’ for preparatory courses. Parents were already in a panic – and then it turned out that there is not enough space. Just two hours after registration opened, the majority of spaces had been filled. Those who wanted their children to study in Russian panicked more than others, as the ‘Russian sector’ in Baku schools is very popular, though there are few places for children.

Why is it a problem to be denied a spot in preparatory courses? This is part of a larger, systemic problem in Azerbaijan. You have to work to get your child into a school. The legislation would appear comprehensible and sensible – there is even a law that obliges schools to register children who live in the area. However, a school can still tell you that there isn’t enough space and can ask for bribes. Prestigious Baku schools only accept children that have gone through multiple stages of testing.

Parents stormed the Ministry of Education in Baku. I was informed by the ministry’s hotline that:

– “The Ministry cannot help you. This is a new law. Put your child into school.”

– “But he’s only five years old! He’ll turn six in the end of December, in the middle of the school year!”

– “We can’t do anything.”

– “How do you think I’m supposed to have my child study with children who are older than him? He is simply not ready for school!”

– “You should have put him through preparatory courses last year.”

– “He was only four years old, he was going to kindergarten…”

– “The ministry cannot help you.”

Many others heard the same excuse – ‘the ministry cannot help you’. Crowds of irritated fathers and mothers have demanded from the ministry an explanation as to why the authors of the new bill didn’t take into account the fact that children were also born in 2012; they simply pretended as if these children didn’t exist. Why have parents been deprived of the choice of when to send their child to school?

Some parents have decided to send their five-year-old children to first grade, afraid that next year they won’t be able to. Taking into account the fact that registration began back in February and there are practically no spaces left, it is easy to imagine how difficult this was. Applicants for spaces within Russian-language schools were told to apply to the Azerbaijani sector, which is particularly absurd if you know the background information behind this issue. In Russian-language schools, there are many children who don’t know Russian but whose parents want them to learn the language. Given the fact that education in Russian-language schools is free, it is a difficult opportunity to pass up.

Some two weeks remain before the start of the school season, and parents don’t know what to do:

  • To let their unprepared five-year-olds study with six- and seven-year-olds;
  • To wait another year until their children are six years old, and to try and register them in first grade, taking on the risk that preference will be given to children who have already completed school preparatory courses;
  • To trust in the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan which guarantees every citizen the right to an education; to trust the Ministry of Education which states that there are no obstacles being placed before children and to rely on the hope that MPs won’t pass another law on the subject next year.

The most regretful aspect of all of this is that parents who want to give their children the best education possible will follow the well-trodden path: they will arrange for their children to go to school through acquaintances in government departments or simply give a bribe to the director of the school itself.

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