21 november 2012

Video conference on developing preschool education and increasing its accessibility

Transcript of the beginning of the meeting:

Dmitry Medvedev: Hello everyone! Today we will once again consider preschool education development and eliminating waiting lists for kindergartens during a video linkup with the Russian regions. The situation in most of the regions, although not everywhere, remains acute. I recently held a meeting on the subject, but we must regularly resume discussions and study the dynamics, as the issue is urgent. In some regions the problem is nearly resolved, which we recently discussed. But this accounts for only 10% of the total number of regions. Ms Golodets (Deputy Prime Minister), is this correct? 

Olga Golodets: Eight regions…

Dmitry Medvedev: That makes 10%, yes.

Olga Golodets: Yes.

Dmitry Medvedev: Five million children went to kindergarten on 1 September, 2012. Over 400,000 were put on waiting lists. This is a major problem for many families, especially in small towns and villages where this issue is not easily resolved. People complain that they have to wait for years. We have an objective which we must achieve − eliminating all waiting lists by 2016. Obviously, this is important not only for children but also for their parents, who will be able to work and to earn more money for their families. And, of course, this is very important for demographics and family planning. The Government provides the regions with budget loans for the construction of new kindergarten buildings and for the renovation of old ones. These construction projects should comply with modern standards and safety regulations. In 2012, these loans, worth of almost eight billion roubles, were received by 41 regions. Moreover, additional accommodation at kindergartens is being provided under the federal targeted programme for the development of education in 2011-2015. The regions receive subsidies in order to implement these projects, which amount to about a billion roubles in 2012. Anyway, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that these allocations should be spent in the most effective way.

But obviously, this funding is not enough to solve the problem in general. We should not make things more difficult, and we should not indulge in wishful thinking. Consequently, we should think about where to find extra funding. That’s why I would like to instruct Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets and the Ministry of Finance to study the issue and make recommendations regarding additional funding for the modernisation of preschool and extracurriculum  education in 2013-2015 as part of  the state programme for the development of education. Such additional funding, which totals an estimated 300 billion-plus roubles, should help accomplish this objective. Please report on the results next week.

At the same time, I would like to say that I am issuing a directive on the healthcare modernisation programme to be carried out over the same period. Please focus on the issue of obstetrics and perinatal centres. Ms Golodets, please go over this issue together with Mr Anton Siluanov. For their part, Russian regions should implement road maps regarding the development of municipal preschool education. And, of course, we should not forget about providing support for private kindergartens. This is a relatively new alternative project in Russia, which has earned a reputation for itself. I hope that the number of these institutions, these family kindergartens and organisations, will continue to increase. On the whole, the rest comes down to specific assessments and estimates.

Obviously, this is an important period for any child. This is the time when children start perceiving themselves and the world around them, and when the foundations of their creative abilities are being established. That’s why top-quality preschool education is essential. This is absolutely necessary because, to be honest, a child’s preschool perceptions will be retained to a considerable extent at the school level. The school education system will have to address and solve this problem, but this process will prove much more difficult.

We are now drafting federal standards of preschool education. Mr Livanov (Addressing Minister of Education and Science Dmitry Livanov), when do we plan to complete this work?

Dmitry Livanov: These standards will become necessary when the new law on education comes into force, because they follow from the essence of the law. I think that we will complete this project in 2013.

Dmitry Medvedev: So we will have one more set of standards, on preschool education, next year. This must be done, and the work on it must be completed without delay.

Another key issue concerns, of course, the salaries of preschool staff, which should be increased to match the average salary in education in each given region in 2013. This is being done. I was in Voronezh yesterday, where I was told about the situation in this area in the Voronezh Region. The relevant allocations have been approved. Let’s see what is going on in other regions. That is all I wanted to say at the beginning of our meeting. You should all get to work, including in accordance with the instruction I have just issued.

Ms Golodets, over to you please.

Olga Golodets: Thank you, Mr Medvedev. But first I’d like to thank you for issuing this instruction. We will do as instructed, including drafting the resolution and fulfilling the programme that is so important for each Russian region. I repeat that it is important for each region, because even those regions that have resolved this issue are now talking about the future, about 2015, in every conference call. Why is that? The reason is that each new generation differs from the previous generation in terms of numbers. Indeed, 1.726 million children were born in 2011, and we expect them to attend preschools in the future. It is a major achievement of our demographic policy, and we take it into account when calculating how many preschool places we will need in the future. We have estimated the shortfall at 500,000 places. Progress in this area varies from region to region. The size of investment and the solution of this issue strongly depend on getting the authorities, including governors, involved in the issue of preschool places. Some regions have reported outstanding results, and today we can talk with their representatives. One of them is Oleg Betin (Governor of the Tambov Region). He has developed a unique approach to solving the problem; the preschools that are being built in the region are innovative establishments that are the envy of every other region.

It is wonderful that we have such ingenious examples. They are ingenious in terms of education technology and the economic foundations of preschools, which is especially important today when we have to simultaneously address several tasks, in particular, ensuring there are enough preschool places, improving preschool teachers’ skills, resolving the issue of teachers’ salaries and introducing new standards of preschool education. Hence, preschool education really is a most complex task, which we will start tackling on 1 January 2013. The issue of preschool places changes almost daily. On 1 September 2012, 447,000 children aged between three and seven could not attend preschools, but the current figure is 418,000 and the regions are reporting an increasing number of preschool places each month.

At the same time, some regions are unable to resolve the issue in accordance with their roadmaps even within three years. I hope that concrete measures will be proposed to resolve the issue of preschool places in the longer term rather than only for the period until 2015, both through the efforts of the federal authorities and the government of each individual region. We must resolve this issue once and for all, taking into account all the demographic trends and gaps between generations. The smallest generation of preschool children in Russia is 1.2 million and the largest is 1.726 million. So we must act expediently to ensure preschool places are available for all children, based on the demographic forecasts.

The next issue which I’d like to say a few words on is about improving the skills of our preschool teachers and increasing their salaries. Compared to last year, the salaries of preschool teachers have risen by 14.5% and now stand at 47% of the average wage for the region, but this is still not enough. At this stage there is indeed a shortage of resources for this, but I hope that in following your instructions, we will be able to take a large step forward and fulfill the directive precisely and on time. I also hope that each family with young children will soon register the improvements in the very infrastructure and – more importantly – the quality and content of early education, because, as most experts say, between the ages of three and seven is the golden age in a person’s life, which determines his or her lifelong development. That is why we are so determined to make every effort to fulfill your directive.

Thank you very much.

Dmitry Medvedev: All right, go ahead. You can look up the deadline.

Now Mr Livanov, please.

Dmitry Livanov: Mr Medvedev, colleagues,

I will report very briefly on the current state of the early education system and the progress on your earlier instructions. Each of Russia’s regions has by now adopted a regional programme, or roadmap. We have summarised these programmes and the data, and have analysed the progress on these commitments during the first nine months of 2012. I will now report briefly.

The main target all regions are trying to achieve is development of the system of state and municipal institutions for children aged 3-7. Some expansion has been achieved through adding places in existing programmes for ages 3-7, which means tapping internal reserves, or adding kindergarten programmes to existing schools. However, all regions agree that more institutions should be built. At the same time, they are developing family kindergartens and are working intensively to return the kindergarten buildings that were being used for other purposes in the mid-1990s. Existing buildings are being renovated and expanded to accommodate more children. Many regions plan to use innovative construction technologies such as module construction to build them faster.

There is another important way to improve the system – to develop private programmes for children aged 3-7. Regional governments are implementing several kinds of support policies: accommodating private programmes in specially restructured premises on the first floor of blocks of flats or office buildings. Many companies – I mean large corporations of course – set up day care programmes for their staff’s children at their own operations. Universities have joined this effort as well. We believe all these efforts contribute to reaching the common target.

Many regions are also working intensively to remove unnecessary administrative barriers to encourage individual entrepreneurship in education. We are cooperating with the Agency for Strategic Initiatives to promote new projects that we support. However, Russian regions estimate that private initiatives will not be able to add more than 5% of the needed places for children aged 3-7, and the current shortage is 600,000 places. Actually I believe that regional authorities simply underestimate private initiative in this sphere.

Next slide please. For the most part, regions expect the problem to be solved by constructing additional buildings. This dependence will probably weaken with time, depending on how intensively our programme are implemented – the one we are starting in 2013 in compliance with your directive.

At this point, the figures are as follows: 418,000 children aged 3-7 were on waiting lists as of November 1, 2012, which is indeed a significant improvement (down 70,000) since January 1. The most recent monthly monitoring results show that eight regions have placed all children with educational programmes and have no more waiting lists. These are the Republic of Tatarstan, the Vologda, Kirov, Kostroma, Novgorod and Tambov regions, and The Nenets and Chukchi autunomous areas. Eight more regions said they would eliminate waiting lists by September 1, 2013; you can see them on the slide.

Dmitry Medvedev: So there will be 16 of them.

Dmitry Livanov: Yes, a total of 16. I would like to thank the regional leaders for their effort. We have registered significant progress. There has also been positive change in the Ivanovo Region and Bashkortostan, and much is being done in the Kemerovo Region, where the authorities have attracted additional resources. In general, work is in progress. However, there is a group of regions (the next slide, please) where the situation is quite serious and which are unlikely to resolve the issue of preschool availability by 2016 even if they implement the roadmaps, which all regions have. These are the republics of Adygea, Buryatia, Ingushetia, Tyva and Chechnya and the Omsk Region. So we need to work more actively and persistently there to resolve this issue.

The next slide. Regarding standards and new curricula, they have already been talked about. I’d like to say again that our goal is not only to ensure that preschools have enough places for all children, but also to improve the social status and the qualifications of preschool teachers and to promote modern psychological and pedagogical methods. Ultimately, we need to create a modern system of early development and socialisation of children. The education systems of industrialised countries are focused on preschool education, as we have noticed. Therefore, we should move in this direction too. We certainly understand that the regional budgets badly need additional funds, because spending on increasing the salaries of teachers alone… We not only increase salaries, but also the number of educators, because an additional 600,000 children at preschools requires an additional 55,000-60,000 preschool teachers and assistants. We have estimated additional funding, compared to basic allocations from regional budgets in 2012, at 82 billion roubles in 2013, 105 billion in 2014 and 115 billion in 2015.

Dmitry Medvedev: I have just issued an instruction on this issue, so the social block of the Government, including the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of this area, should focus on this subject.

Dmitry Livanov: Mr Medvedev, this concludes my report.

Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you.


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Closing remarks by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev:

Dmitry Medvedev: These are fairly important things. You're absolutely right with regard to the school/kindergarten relationship. Kindergarten is where the education of children begins and it’s very important where they continue their education after kindergarten. Perhaps a kindergarten at a school is the best available solution. Such arrangements exist in all Russian cities and major towns, but not everywhere. Perhaps we should think about creating a system where parents whose child goes to a particular kindergarten will know which school their children will go to afterwards, preferably a nearby school with good teachers and a compatible academic programme.

I have no objections with regard to outsourcing lunches, but I'm not sure that it’s always a good idea, because if the meals supply is up and running and a kindergarten is fairly large, then perhaps it makes sense to do so, since meals would be cheaper and better. But this system won’t work everywhere. I’m not sure whether outsourcing will benefit relatively small kindergartens or, even more so, privately-run day care centres. However, such arrangements are becoming increasingly available and I hope that they will be used in Moscow as well.

I would like our colleagues to see if anything can be done with regard to nurses and whether they should become employees of preschool institutions or remain employed by outpatient clinics. The situation with school nurses is similar and even more complicated: on the one hand, a school should have a nurse, but on the other hand, school nurses are paid less and have inferior skills.  Perhaps we need to come up with an arrangement where nurses could provide medical services both at kindergartens and schools.

My last point is about putting a rouble value on these services. It’s unlikely that we will ever be able to come up with common criteria where parents will be able to vote with their money to say that they aren’t happy with a particular service, or that they want a particular teacher for their child. Of course, parents will always have the final say. In general, there must be some sort of evaluation criteria in place. I understand that we do already have such criteria.

Perhaps a better place to discuss this subject would be a meeting at Mr Rubtsov’s university (Vitaly Rubtsov, Rector of the Moscow University of Psychology and Education), because this is a difficult, I would even say very debatable issue. We all have friends. I have a friend who was contemplating a kindergarten for his child here in Russia or someplace overseas. He chose Russia, because kindergartens overseas do not provide any education at all. You are talking about inferior quality of services and so on, while back there they are not even thinking about educating children at kindergartens. Of course, day care services are provided for a fee, because they are looking after your child.  At best, what they do at such kindergartens is give out books to children or turn on the TV to keep them busy. In Russia, we have always considered preschool education to be education, although there are people now who disagree with this concept. They are saying that children don’t need preschool education and that they will have more than enough time to study at school and then at a university. So the issue is not as simple as it looks: what services should be provided at kindergartens? Should they provide educational services?

I suggest that we stop the discussion here, otherwise we'll get bogged down in much more complex issues, whereas our task at hand is quite simple: we need to encourage everyone, including the regions that we had online today, to build more childcare centres. We have good demographic statistics. I checked the numbers and it looks like we even have had population growth over the past eight months. Very good numbers, which, of course, are pushing us to do more in this regard. I have issued proper directives. As they used to say in the Soviet time: let’s get to work, comrades!