Peter Petroff, Social-Democrat, February 1931

Elementary Education in the Five Years Plan?

Source: Social-Democrat, February 1931, p. 6;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In the field of education the Soviet Government was faced with tremendous problems after the October Revolution. A people of one hundred and fifty millions, the greater part of which could neither read nor write, having been kept in darkness by Tsarism, had to be assisted in finding their way to the light of knowledge. Much has been achieved under extremely difficult conditions, yet considering the magnitude of the task these achievements very small indeed. An unquenchable for knowledge seized the masses of the people, but the means of satisfying it are yet forthcoming.

In 1920 out of the entire male population of the Soviet Union 55.4 per cent. were illiterate, amongst the female population 74.2 per cent. Naturally in the towns the cultural level was much higher than in the country. According to the census of 1926 per cent. 26.69 of the male urban population and 53.53 per cent. of the male rural population were illiterate. As regards the female part of the population the corresponding figures were 43.38 per cent. and 76.73 per cent. However, only by comparing the different parts of the country we gain a proper idea of the difficulties of the problem. The age of illiterate males varies between and 87.48 per cent., the percentage of illiterate females between 29.80 and 96.89 per cent. in various districts. These figures will assist the reader to appraise the difficulties of the educational problems in Soviet Russia.

From the outset it was clear that the raising of the cultural level of the population could be attained only by the immediate introduction of general compulsory education. Twelve years have passed and this task is still awaiting its solution. Of course the educational authorities could not concentrate on this problem alone. For still more urgent seemed at the moment the provision educational facilities for the present generation, for those who fought in the Revolution and were to participate in the modelling of the new life, for the elder generation who – having been deprived of the benefits of education in their time – were now to play their part in the cultural life of the suddenly awakened people.

Besides, all the educational institutions suddenly seemed inadequate and obsolete – consequently it was not only a question of developing the existing system but of re-building it on entirely new lines. And here the child was often turned out with the bath. Especially as regards secondary and high schools at first much that was valuable was destroyed, although there was as yet no clear idea as to what was to be put in its place. Experimenting began and this at once on an all-Russian scale. Thus in the educational field we still find to a great extent the chaotic state which in other spheres has already been overcome.

This state of chaos finds its expression especially in the five years’ plan. There is not only one educational five years’ plan but several plans peacefully existing side by side, the most important of which are those emanating from the State Plan Commission of the U.S.S.R. and from the People’s Commissariat of Education of the R.S.F.S.R.

However, one thing is now perfectly clear: general compulsory elementary education will not be carried out within these five years. While in Germany compulsory elementary education comprises a period of eight years (6-14) and in Great Britain this period is about to be further extended, in Russia the educational plan aims at the introduction of general education for four years only (8-11). Yet it has to be admitted that even this modest object will not be attained during the current five years.

According to the census of 1926 there were in the U.S.S.R. 11,226,249 children between 8-11; in 1932/33 there will be a total of 15-17 millions. In 1928/29 there were (according to the State Plan Commission) in the U.S.S.R. 10,138,000 children on the registers of the elementary schools. Of this number 8.9 million children were of the R.S.F.S.R. According to the five years’ plan of the State Plan Commission of the U.S.S.R. at the conclusion of the five years, i.e., in 1932/33, the number of children attending elementary schools will reach 13,597,000, or approximately 90 per cent. of the total. We must, however, bear in mind that only 33.5 per cent. of the children entering school actually remain there four years. It is hoped that in 1932/33 their number will reach 51.2 per cent.

This is the modest object the five years’ plan aims at. However, considering the actual requirements and the means available for this purpose we must doubt as to whether even this plan can be realised.

In 1928/29 in the U.S.S.R. the expenditure on education through the Union and local budget amounted to 1,073 million roubles – 16.7 per cent. of the total expenditure. In the U.S.S.R. education is being administered by the Federal Republics. But the five years’ plan of the State Plan Commission of the U.S.S.R. is not based on definite calculations for the Federal Republics. It has been composed superficially without special- reference to the actual conditions prevailing in the various republics and is based upon very problematic figures. The educational five years’ plan worked out by the People’s Commissariat for Education of the R.S.F.S.R. seems to have a sounder and more real basis. Since the R.S.F.S.R. comprises 93 per cent. of the territory and 68.5 per cent. of the population of the U.S.S.R., we will in our further analysis deal chiefly with this plan.

For the period 1928/1929 – 1932/33 the R.S.F.S.R. estimates expenditure on education to reach 5,316,000,000 roubles, including 1,874,257,000 roubles on elementary education. These figures must be considered somewhat doubtful, for on the one hand it is questionable whether the 1.1 milliard roubles which have to be provided through the Union budget of the U.S.S.R. will be forthcoming; on the other hand, the State Plan Commission of the R.S.F.S.R. has struck off 196 million roubles without indicating under which head the expenditure is to be reduced!

The People’s Commissariat of Education of the R.S.F.S.R. expects to carry through general compulsory elementary education only in 1936/37. In 1928/29 there were on the registers of the elementary schools of the R.S.F.S.R. 6,187,000 children; in 1932/33 the number of pupils will increase to 8,898,000 i.e., 93.8 per cent. at the total number of children between 8 and 11 years which will then reach 9,483,000.

The main difficulty in introducing general compulsory education consists in the lack of school accommodation and teachers. Especially the provision of school buildings forms a very difficult problem both in urban and rural districts. In the R.S.F.S.R. alone 79,231 new school rooms are required. The plan foresees the erection of only 20,000 schools of two classes each during the current five years. When this will have been accomplished only 49 per cent. of the demand will be satisfied. Yet even now 36 per cent. of the school rooms in towns and 34 per cent. in the country are being used in two shifts. The classes are overcrowded. Instead of the normal size of classes of 40 pupils, frequently 60-70 children are being taught together. The fixed norms for air and floor space per pupil are rarely adhered to. Thus the floor space per pupil fixed at 1.25 square metres m reality averages at 1.08 square metres in proper school buildings, and 0.85 square metres in classes accommodated in provisional buildings (22 per cent. of the total number of classes). As regards air space the norm is fixed at 4.38 cubic metres, while in reality only 3.37 or 2.40 cubic metres are reached. This results in serious injury to the health of the children. In many districts the sick rate reaches 50 per cent. According to the data of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection in the Nishn, Novgorod District 85 per cent. of the school children are anaemic.

The means provided for the maintenance of the schools are inadequate. According to the State Plan Commission of the R.S.F.S.R. the expenditure per pupil, for instance, in the central industrial district is to be raised from 5 roubles in 1928/29 to 10 roubles in 1932/33, while in the zemstvo schools in the same district before the Revolution this expenditure amounted to 18.16 roubles, which equals 21.32 roubles at present.

In 1928/29 in the elementary schools of the U.S.S.R. there were 214,000 teachers, and in the R.S.F.S.R. 149,420. In 1932/33 in the R.S.F.S.R. alone 229,800 teachers will be required, and in the whole of the U.S.S.R., 377,000. The existing teachers’ training colleges do not suffice to cover the demand. Therefore the plan foresees the training of auxiliary teachers by means of one year’s courses. Already at present the training of teachers leaves much to be desired – 23.6 per cent. of the teachers in elementary schools (and even 10 per cent. of the teachers in secondary possess only elementary education.

The economic position of the teachers is very unsatisfactory. The salaries averaging in 1927/28 at 47 roubles and in 1929/30 at 57 roubles per month, according to the plan of the People’s Commissariat of Finance, are to be raised to 80 roubles in 1932/33, according to the State Plan Commission of the U.S.S.R. to 85 roubles. This would mean that in 1932/33 the level of 1914 (nominally) – 70 roubles – will at last be exceeded.

However, the saddest of all is the position of the lady teacher in the provinces, who very often, even when she is a member of the Communist Party, has to choose either prostitution or unemployment. Just recently, at the Communist Educational Conference held in Moscow, April 29, 1930, Mr. Abolin, the representative of the Central Educational Commission, declared:

“Numerous facts have come to our knowledge concerning the rough and cynical treatment meted out to the local educational workers. Even in such a cultured district as the Lower Volga many such cases have taken place. Let us take for example the Romanov district: there the head of the local educational authority is a certain Kharitonoff. He simply dismissed 40 teachers stating: ‘dismissed in accordance with petition’ but there was no petition. There such cases happened as Kharitonoff writing to a lady teacher: ‘I am yours till to-morrow morning.’ If she did not comply with his will she was dismissed within a few days.” (Pravda, April 30, 1930.)

As a considerable number of children are not absorbed by the schools many youngsters are growing up illiterate. According to the census of 1926 there were 8,657,000 illiterate young people. As only 30 per cent. of these will find admission to special schools and courses the number of illiterates between 16 and 34, amounting to 9,064,000 in 1928/29, will reach in 1932/33 9,648,000. This shows that the development of the educational system in the Soviet Union does not as yet keep pace with the growth of the population.