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Free Will or Fate? 

Why Russian Children Rarely Switch Schools

High School No. 25, Krasnodar Region / © ANDREI ZORKIN / Wikimedia Commons

Unlike many other countries, Russian children’s educational path is decided from an early age. Starting with the first grade, parents try to send their children to schools where they can remain until they graduate after either the 9th or 11th grades. Moreover, many families do not use the opportunity available to them to transfer their children to a better school partway through their education. The result is that inter-school mobility remains low and a child’s educational path is often hard-wired early on, HSE University sociologists in St. Petersburg found.

Non-mobile education

Not surprisingly, larger cities offer a wider choice of schools and students can switch between them. Smaller cities and villages, however, often have only one school, with the result that students have less opportunity to receive a good education or at least change their educational path.

The distance to school and transportation are also issues of vital importance, but these are easily resolved in the big cities where young people can switch to better schools in their own district or ones nearby. However, such mobility remains rare, explained HSE University sociologists in St. Petersburg.

Valeria Ivaniushina and Elena Williams found that, in major Russian cities, 65% of school students study at the same school from the first through the ninth grades and 85% study in the same school from the fifth through the ninth grades.

Other studies confirm that Russian students rarely switch schools. By comparison, such inter-school mobility is much higher in the U.S. For example, experts found that in Chicago in the mid-1990s, as many as 50% of all elementary students switched schools.

Such movement decreases as U.S. students grow older. The U.S. Department of Education found that in 2002, 21% of eighth-graders and 10% of 12th graders had switched schools at least once in the previous two years.

As students grow older, they switch schools less frequently. According to the U.S. Department of Education data for 2002, 21% of eighth-graders and 10% of 12th graders had changed schools at least once in the previous two years.

The study by the St. Petersburg-based sociologists is based on an administrative database of the city’s schools that includes information on students switching between schools. The frequency of such transitions was studied using data on more than 370,000 children from 582 schools. Of these, 335 are ordinary general education schools, 130 offer in-depth study of particular subjects, 73 are preparatory schools and 44 are lyceums.

Why switch schools

According to U.S. and British researchers, children most often switch schools after moving to a new district or city.

Other reasons include harassment, conflicts, and dangerous school environments. In what is referred to as ‘strategic mobility,’ parents often move their children to schools that better meet their expectations.

According to experts, approximately 60% of school transitions without a change of residence are associated with dissatisfaction with the previous school and 40% with the attractiveness of the new school that offers advanced academic programmes and extracurricular activities.

When students try to escape problems that have arisen, they usually switch to another school near home, but when they are looking for a better school, they are often willing to travel some distance to reach it.

Ivaniushina and Williams primarily looked at cases of ‘strategic mobility’ involving the search for more suitable schools and programmes.

Early stratification

Low inter-school mobility in Russia is associated with the fact that families choose which type of education their children will receive early on when youngsters are just starting school.

Deciding the educational path a student will follow while the child is still young is called ‘pre-tracking.’

In this system, children find themselves distributed among different types of schools even before they officially decide after the ninth grade whether they will continue along an academic track by continuing through the 11th grade and, possibly university, or a professional track by attending a college or trade school.

Even before their children have started school, parents effectively decide which institution they will attend and with the members of which social class they will study.

This is an unusual state of affairs. Germany and Austria had previously been considered leaders in the practice of pre-tracking because they assign children to particular schools at age 10, after the early grades. Next in this practice come Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where youngsters go into specific tracks at age 11 or 12. Now, however, Russia has become the world leader for pre-tracking, assigning children to this or that educational path at as early as six or seven years of age.

Schools as ‘sorting machines’

Differentiation between types of schools and the relative levels of the programmes they offer is common to many countries of the world. At issue here is exactly when that specialisation begins, and who makes the choice.

Young people choose their further direction in life at age 15 or 16 in most OECD countries such as Australia, Great Britain, Greece, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Canada, Norway, Poland, the U.S., Finland, France, and Japan. In Russia, tracking formally occurs at age 15, but in practice, 9th graders choose whether to continue their high school education or transfer into the secondary vocational education system that includes trade and technical schools.

Although the students themselves make this decision, their families undoubtedly wield significant influence. Many scholars even speak of a 'parentocracy' concerning education. The parents’ socio-economic status (SES) — their educational level, income, and interest in culture — largely programs their children’s educational path, and often imposes artificial limits on it as well. The result is that even when children from poorer families perform well in school, they often choose to attend vocational schools rather than universities.

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How the social status of the family programs the education of the child

Research indicates that a family’s SES influences the choice of a primary school. The children of wealthy parents with high professional status are more likely to study at preparatory schools and lyceums. That is, families with greater resources put their kids on a more advantageous educational track right from the start. This helps the children receive a high-quality education that makes it easier for them to succeed in life.

To one degree or another, all European countries experience a similar stratification of schools and students. It is no accident that researchers call schools 'sorting machines' that divide children not only according to their scholastic achievements but also according to the status of their parents.

Stratification of children

A low level of inter-school mobility — in which it is almost impossible for students to switch between institutions of different types — indicates very rigid tracking. Researchers distinguish between explicit and implicit tracking.

In the latter, different schools offer what seems to be the same programme, but they differ in the quality of instruction and the type of students enrolled. Housing segregation often plays a role in this: the quality of education is better in the wealthier parts of the city. That is the situation in the U.S.

Explicit tracking, in which schools differentiate according to requirements and programmes, is found in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The German system of tracking is one of the most rigid. Children start out studying the same set of subjects. Based on how they perform at this stage, the teacher recommends which educational path the child should pursue further. Secondary education offers three types of schools, but only one of them — the ‘gymnasium’ or preparatory school — gives students the right to attend university. The other two channel students into vocational education. 

This approach exacerbates educational inequality: the earlier the division into tracks, the greater the differences.

Nominal equality 

Tracking existed even back in Soviet Russia, with the children of privileged families studying at the best schools — although the leadership declared equal opportunity for all. The same differentiation was institutionalized in the early post-Soviet period.

Beginning in 1992, in place of a uniform model, a variable approach offered a choice between different educational paths. Various types of schools appeared: those offering a general secondary education as well as those carrying higher status due to advanced studies in various subjects, preparatory schools, and lyceums. The legal basis for tracking and sorting students — often from primary grades — was in place right up until 2012, when a new law on education was introduced. The foundation for the practice of pre-tracking was put in place over 20 years. Having higher than usual status allowed schools to require entrance exams, even for those entering the first grade.

In 2010, approximately 20% of all Russian schools held “higher status” and most of those were located in large cities.

The 2012 law on education eliminated special status for schools and formally made them equal. But today’s parents are more determined than ever to find good schools for the children that offer a motivational learning environment and affluent classmates — often starting in the first grade.

The strategic two per cent

Russian parents enjoy a wider choice of schools than parents in many other countries do and children are not required to study close to home. Surveys show that many families do not assume that their child will study all 11 grades in a single school. Through interviews and questionnaires, they note the possibility of switching schools, especially when the child is older and can move around the city independently.

But do families use this opportunity to increase their children’s chances of succeeding? To answer this, researchers analysed the frequency of such school transfers between the first and 11th grades.

It turned out that 2%-3% of all students change schools each year because they relocate to new cities, regions, or countries. This figure remains constant through primary and middle grades, and declines during the upper grades.

The number of school transfers within the city spikes at two points: after the fourth grade (10%) and after the ninth (12%-13%) — that is, after the primary and middle grades. 

This apparently points to a rise in strategic mobility, because the search for the best school occurs at these particular times. During all other years, an average of 5%-7% of students changes schools within the same city in a given year.

‘Not having data on the reasons for changing schools, but relying on the data of foreign researchers,’ the study’s authors noted, ‘we can assume that at least one-half of all children who change schools do so because their family has moved. Many children switch schools due to conflicts with their previous schoolmates.’

The researchers concluded that only 1%-2% of such transfers annually were attributable to ‘strategic mobility.’

‘For all years taken together, an average of 8.7% of students change schools each year, 2.4% of whom move to new regions or countries and 6.3% of whom relocate within the same city,’ the researchers calculated.

In this sample, 65% of all students never changed schools.

What’s more, as many as 85% of students remain at the same school during the middle years —that is, between the fifth and ninth grades.

Prep schools are forever, while ordinary schools are only temporary

The type of school has a clear influence on how often students leave after the 9th grade. Students leave preparatory schools least often and ordinary schools with the greatest frequency. Schools offering advanced studies in specific subjects fall somewhere in-between.

Approximately 11% of 10th graders leave prep schools, 19% leave specialized schools, and more than 33% leave schools with standard curriculums.

Those leaving after the ninth grade go in different directions. Students departing preparatory schools split equally between other standard schools (5.3%) and vocational schools (5.5%).

This trend is especially evident among students leaving standard schools with advanced instruction in specific subjects — 5.9% of whom leave for other schools, and 13.3% of whom enrol in secondary vocational schools — while of those leaving ordinary schools, 7.5% enter other schools and 26.1% go to vocational schools.

Ordinary schools supply vocational students

The researchers studied the connection between the type of school and the proportion of its students leaving for vocational schools after the ninth grade. The most — an average of 22% — left schools with standard programmes to study at vocational schools. Fully 14% fewer students than the reference group left preparatory schools and lyceums, and 9% fewer left schools with advanced studies in specific subjects.

The explanatory power of the model increases when data on schools’ average results for compulsory Centralised Testing in mathematics and Russian is added. Given equal results on the Russian language exam, ninth-graders are less likely to go to secondary vocational schools from preparatory schools and lyceums than from other types of schools.

For each point higher on a school’s Centralised Exam for Russian, 1.18% fewer ninth-graders leave for vocational schools. That figure falls by another 5.14% if the students attend a preparatory school or lyceum.

Self-induced stratification

Despite the ability to choose from among different educational paths and the availability of a wide variety of schools, researchers found that few people take advantage of this opportunity. However, educated middle-class families are most likely to do so, spending time and effort to study and compare schools to choose the best option for their child.

Less-educated families are often poorly informed: they are insufficiently acquainted with the way the educational system works and lack social and other resources needed to send their children to the best schools.

The same situation arises in other countries as well. Wealthier, more educated families usually benefit most from the educational system, as explained by the theory of ‘effectively maintained inequality.’

‘Socio-economically successful individuals try to provide any available advantage for themselves and their children, whether quantitative (in terms of the number of years studied or the degree earned) or qualitative,’ the researchers explained. In the context of universal school education, this translates to the choice of schools offering a higher quality of education or to the most promising educational tracks within the schools. What’s more, decisions made at the start of a child’s educational career heavily influence subsequent decisions.

Movement towards equality

The experience in many countries shows that families do not always choose the optimal educational path for their children simply because such an opportunity exists.

It is necessary to help students identify their interests and aptitudes and do more to explain to them the opportunities for receiving this or that level of education.

In one example, this is the practice of Russia’s so-called ‘resilient schools’ that work with difficult students but that manage to achieve strong results. They primarily improve their students' chances of leading successful lives.

Russia has another important positive experience, albeit one that it applies very narrowly. Top schools actively recruit regional and national winners of ‘Olympiad’ academic contests in various subjects and provide them with every opportunity to develop their talents.

The study’s authors point out that this approach could be used for all students who demonstrate an interest in a particular academic subject. Such inter-school mobility would reduce educational inequality.



Study authors:
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, February 20, 2020