Cambridge International Schools in Russia

Tom Savage

There are a number of new private ‘international schools’ offering their services for expatriates and Russians alike in Russia. Cambridge International School Russia, which has been operating in Russia for two years now manage three schools which collectively educate over 500 students, and are opening a new school ‘Gorky 8’ next September for another 600 students. With this 32,000 sq. metre campus they are seeking to raise the bar for school facilities in Russia and they have ambitious plans to open another three new schools over the next four years.

Ildar Nafikov, the CEO and Managing Partner of Cambridge International School Russia

What makes Cambridge International schools any different from the other schools around town? To find out, I spoke to Ildar Nafikov, the CEO and Managing Partner of Cambridge International School Russia. Mr Nafikov sees Cambridge offering a unique service for two main reasons. Firstly, the schools will offer both the Russian State curriculum (designed for the official ‘EGE’ exam) in addition to the main Cambridge International ‘IGCSE’ and ‘A’ level curriculum. The schools are open to both expatriate and Russian children, with the current ratio being about 70% Russian and 30% foreign children.

This is important, Mr Nafikov says, so that there is a choice. “Parents who are only here for a few years generally choose the international curriculum of ‘IGCSEs’ and ‘A’ levels, because they know that their children will then be able to potentially continue their education in another school elsewhere in the world. Russian parents also want their children to study the curriculum because the international diploma will make the school graduates a part of the international system of education and thus open the doors of opportunity for them to study in the leading universities all around the world. Russian parents may wish their children to study the Russian curriculum as well, so the teenagers have the choice to go to a foreign or a Russian university, to mitigate the parents’ concerns about the ever-changing future or give the children the widest range of choice.”

I asked Mr Nafikov if studying both curriculums could be too stressful for the small number of children who study both. He replied: “Yes, children have more hours. But in fact, we have worked our timetables out so that there are adequate rest times between lessons, and they do just fine. To some extent, the two systems complement each other. For example, the Russian maths syllabus is  pragmatic and based more on logic and problem solving than the international version which is more to do with mathematics itself. In many ways, the two versions can complement each other.”

There is a serious debate in education circles as to which curriculum is in fact best to teach in international schools. Cambridge International School Russia, which is certified by Cambridge Assessment and International Education (a department of the University of Cambridge), unsurprisingly, teaches the curriculum based on the Cambridge International system. Mr Nafikov explains: “Before we came into the Russian market we looked at our competitors and other schools which follow the IB programme. We see that ‘A’ levels are recognised by the largest number of universities in the world, in North America, Europe, the United Kingdom, and most other countries. From an academic perspective, we have also conducted our studies, and what we have realised is that actually ‘A’ levels are more flexible for students because if you do the IB programme, there are 7 subjects which are obligatory for every student, they cannot choose. With A-levels, there are 4 obligatory subjects and they are flexible. You choose the same subjects as in IB, but if some of the students want to focus on specific subjects like for example physics or Art you can choose subjects which are more closely related to that.”

Alexander Nikitin, the Head of Business Development at Cambridge

There is a lot more to a school than the syllabus of course. Take the architecture. Alexander Nikitin, the Head of Business Development at Cambridge points out: “Design [of interiors] is a really important part of the education process. Education is going through a time of very important changes. We think that in 3-5 years, it will change dramatically. For example, the University of Cambridge has implemented a programme that is designed to lead education towards skills. So in the future, there will be no mathematics or physics for example, but there will be skill sets such as analytical skills, teamwork, things like that. When the amount of information grows exponentially and changes every other day, you cannot teach children up-to-date information because, by the time they finish school, the information will no longer be relevant. The only viable option you have is to teach skills, rather than knowledge. And if your educational process changes, you have to make your facilities fit your content. That means going away from classroom-focused buildings towards education that happens everywhere in the school (and even outside of it): the library, break-out areas, the canteen, even the playground; wherever the children are.”

“It is very important to find the right architects”, Alexander continued. “You can have all the available information about how best to use space but if you don’t have the right people who can translate ideas into actual design solutions, it is useless.”

There is indeed a problem, as Russian ‘SNIP’ regulations govern every aspect of building and fitting out, especially of school buildings. Every deviation from the norm needs to be approved, and whether they are new builds or refurbishments, all buildings are rigorously inspected before being licenced as schools. Elena Aralova, the Executive Director of Martela architects, which Cambridge International School Russia has commissioned to design the interior of its Gorky-8 campus, explains: “We have to find solutions. For example, in accordance with the department of education, all electric sockets have to be 180 cm above the floor. This creates certain problems with connecting laptops and projectors, especially for the teachers. However, we can get around that by designing interactive podiums that have power points built in.”

In general, Elena explains that it is easier to create a new building that is suitable to be a school than to convert an existing building, which may have small rooms, into a learning environment. “We did a lot of research and have found that there is a strong connection between the design and the results. What is the connection? First of all, it is necessary to motivate children and teachers, and design is one of the strongest motivating tools available. The teaching spaces themselves need to be varied so that the teachers can convey information in the best possible way. Small rooms for small groups and big rooms for lectures. The designs have to include the use of audio-visual equipment and encourage interaction. In the Gorky-8 project, for example, we are creating more large rooms and open spaces, making glass meeting rooms which are open form every side, to facilitate cooperation and openness. When we are talking about the science rooms, we realise that we don’t need separate physics, chemistry and biology labs, because we can make ‘universal’ science labs, which can be used to teach a whole range of different subjects, and are equipped with water gas and electricity. In Gorky-8 there is going to be a 9-storey tower called the Lighthouse, and each floor will be dedicated to one subject – such as science and technology or art. This creates a lot of different challenges and room for inspiring, creative solutions.”

At the present time, it would appear that the influx of international schools is not only bucking the negative trend of avoiding long-term investments in Russia, but providing real choice for parents. This is something to be welcomed.