primary school

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primary school

1. (in Britain) a school for children below the age of 11. It is usually divided into an infant and a junior section
2. (in the US and Canada) a school equivalent to the first three or four grades of elementary school, sometimes including a kindergarten
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Primary School


a general school for children, giving basic instruction in the native language and arithmetic and a rudimentary knowledge of the natural world and society. In the contemporary public school systems of most countries, the primary school (primary grades) is the first stage of compulsory universal education.

The age at which children enter primary school and the amount of time spent there vary from country to country. In Great Britain, for example, children begin their education when they are five years old in an “infant school,” which they leave after two years to enter a four-year primary school. In France, instruction begins at six years of age in primary schools offering a five-year curriculum. In the USA, children at the age of six enroll in elementary schools, where they study for six years (eight years in small-town schools). In most Latin American countries, children enter primary school at the age of six and receive instruction for six years, except in Colombia, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil, where the course of study is five years. In Italy three-year schools, the first cycle of primary education, are compulsory for children six years of age; the full course of primary instruction lasts four to five years. In socialist countries, children begin their primary education at the age of six in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic and at the age of seven in the USSR, Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. In most socialist countries primary education lasts three or four years.

The first primary schools in areas now included in the USSR were founded in the fourth century in Georgia and Armenia; in the ninth to 11th centuries primary schools were established in Russia. Schools were organized by churches and monasteries to provide instruction in reading and writing, the scriptures, and hymn singing. Reading masters, who taught children at home or founded schools in their own homes, played an important role in the spread of literacy, especially from the 14th to the 16th century.

The School of Mathematical and Navigational Sciences was founded in Moscow in 1701. The school’s primary grades consisted of two successive levels: the “Russian school” for studying reading and writing and the “numbers school” for instruction in elementary arithmetic and geometry. Beginning in 1714 numbers schools were founded for children of all classes except the peasantry. In these schools children acquired a basic knowledge of arithmetic and learned to read and write. In the mid-18th century, the numbers schools disappeared, some of them merging with garrison schools, in which soldiers’ children were educated.

Progressive members of society, such as I. T. Pososhkov and V. N. Tatishchev, urged the creation of primary schools for peasant children. The Commission for Founding Schools, organized in 1782, worked out the Statute for Public Schools (1786) under the direction of F. I. Iankovich de Mirievo. In accordance with the statute, central public schools offering a five-year course of study were established in provincial capitals, and “small public schools” with a two-year curriculum were opened in district capitals. The system of teaching by grades and lessons, first used in the brotherhood schools of the Western Ukraine and Byelorussia in the 16th century, was introduced in Russia. New textbooks and visual aids were introduced. A statute adopted in 1804 provided for the creation of a single system of general schools for all social classes. The system was based on the parish schools that were founded in towns and occasionally in villages and on district schools. The statute of 1828 preserved these schools, although not within a single system, and they acquired a class character. Parish schools were designated for the lower classes and district schools for the middle classes. Under the statute, the function of schools was to reinforce the principles of “orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality.”

Progressive social circles expressed their dissatisfaction with the public educational system and called for reform. In the early 1860’s the government was obliged to draw up a plan for school reform as part of the bourgeois reforms of the 1860’s and 1870’s. In accordance with the Regulations for Primary Public Schools adopted in 1864, the primary school was to continue inculcating religious ideas in the people and disseminating basic knowledge. A uniform curriculum was introduced that included religious instruction, the reading of sacred and civic books, computation (the four arithmetic operations), and hymn singing. Lessons could be conducted only in Russian. The primary school was declared to be open to all social classes, and local governing bodies, societies, and private persons were permitted to open schools and to appoint women as well as men to teaching posts. Under the new regulations all primary schools came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Education, with the exception of the church-affiliated parish schools, which remained under the control of the Holy Synod. District and provincial school councils were established to supervise the schools. The primary schools constituted a special educational system for the masses apart from the secondary school system.

The social and educational movement of the 1860’s made an important contribution to the development of primary education. The number of parish and “Sunday schools” increased significantly. K. D. Ushinskii’s books Native Word and Children ’s World, published at this time, played a vital role in shaping the Russian primary school.

The development of the primary school in the 1860’s and 1870’s was closely connected with the activity of the zemstvos (local governing bodies). In the 34 provinces in which zemstvos were established, the primary school system expanded significantly between 1865 and 1874. The zemstvo schools were regarded as offering the best education. They taught not only reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also provided instruction in the natural sciences, geography, and history. The zemstvos supplied the schools with visual aids, textbooks, and readers written by K. D. Ushinskii, L. N. Tolstoi, and other progressive educators and were concerned with improving the qualifications of teachers. However, the educational work of the zemstvos provoked dissatisfaction in government circles. New regulations for primary public schools were adopted in 1874 and remained in effect until 1917. The zemstvos were not permitted to interfere in the schools’ educational activity, and their work in public education was restricted to economic problems. From the 1880’s onward, the government and the church encouraged the spread of church-affiliated parish schools, which were considered the most reliable.

After the victory of the October Revolution of 1917, control of the schools was assumed by the People’s Commissariat of Education, with local supervision entrusted to the public education sections of the Soviets of workers’ and peasants’ deputies. In 1918 the Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree separating the church from the state and the schools from the church. The government took over the expense of maintaining the schools.

Universal compulsory primary education was introduced in the early 1930’s. Initially, the primary school had a five-year course of study, established by the Regulations for a Uniform Labor School (1918). When the seven-year school was created within the system of public education in 1923, the primary school was reduced to four years. In the late 1960’s, after extensive experimentation, the primary school was shortened to three years.

In the USSR the primary school and the corresponding grades in the eight-year school and secondary (ten-year) school are an integral part of the general-educational, labor-oriented polytechnical school. Continuity of all stages of schooling is ensured by the coordination of curricula and by the organization of educational work to fulfill the common task of providing the coming generation with a communist upbringing.

Primary schools are usually established in small settlements lacking eight-year or secondary schools, and serve an area with a radius of not more than 3 km. Children who have attained the age of seven by the beginning of the school year are enrolled in the first grade. An experiment is being conducted to organize instruction from the age of six. Preparatory classes for six-year-olds, especially those who do not speak Russian, are being organized in some Union and autonomous republics to prepare children for the primary school, where they will study both their native language and Russian.

In the primary school and the primary grades of eight-year and secondary schools, all subjects are taught by one teacher. The curriculum calls for 24 hours of class lessons per week, with an additional two or three hours permitted in national schools for instruction in the native language and voluntary study of Russian or another national language. Daily homework is set at a maximum of one hour in the first grade, 1½ hours in the second grade, and two hours in the third grade. The curriculum provides for the study of Russian (and the native language in national schools), arithmetic, and natural history; training in manual work; lessons in art and music; and physical education.

The syllabus in Russian (and the native language) includes instruction in the rudiments of grammar and spelling, the development of intelligible speech and writing, and training in expressive reading aloud with a gradual increase in speed to 80 or 90 words per minute by the end of the third year. Curriculum readings are supplemented by extracurricular lessons. In the teaching of reading and grammar, much attention is given to exercises in logical thinking and the development of independent judgment in the pupils.

The syllabus in arithmetic includes counting and arithmetical operations ranging from simple numerals to numbers in the millions, the concept of fractions, the metric measurement of length and weight, and the reckoning of time. Geometrical material (geometric figures on a plane) is studied in conjunction with arithmetical operations. Particular attention is paid to the development of mathematical thinking. The syllabus in natural history aims to acquaint pupils with natural phenomena, agricultural work, basic facts about human anatomy and physiology, health care, and the preservation of the environment. Study of theoretical material is combined with experiments, practical work, and field trips. In manual training classes various materials are used to make household objects and toys, and assignments in technical model-building become increasingly complex.

Art lessons include drawing from nature or from the imagination on assigned themes, decorative drawing, and familiarization with works of fine art. Lessons in singing and in music appreciation (using recordings) promote the development of vocal and choral skills, artistic taste, and musical ability. Physical education, including gymnastics, games, and skiing lessons, is an important means of improving children’s health. Teaching and upbringing in primary schools is organized in accordance with the psychological makeup of children and their interests and needs.


Konstantinov, N. A., and V. Ia. Struminskii. Ocherki po istorii nachal’nogo obrazovaniia v Rossii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1953.
Problemy obucheniia i vospitaniia v nachal’noi shkole. Edited by B. G. Anan’ev and A. I. Sorokina. Moscow, 1960.
Voprosy psikhologii uchebnoi deiatel’nosti mladshikh shkol’nikov. Edited by D. B. El’konin and V. V. Davydov. Moscow, 1962.
Zankov, L. V. O nachal’nom obuchenii. Moscow, 1963.
Osnovnye voporsy nachal’nogo obucheniia: Sb. Edited by A. S. Pchelko. Moscow, 1963.
Program my vos’miletnei shkoly: Nachal’nye klassy (I-III). Moscow, 1972.
Ocherki istorii shkoly i pedagogicheskoi mysli narodov SSSR, XVIII v.-per. pol. XIX v. Moscow, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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