Good pre-university schooling for a good university: lessons from Kazakhstan

Good pre-university schooling for a good university: lessons from Kazakhstan

Iryna KUSHNIR (University of Sheffield, UK)
Danaaiym TLEKKYZY (Nazarbayev Intellectual School Pavlodar, Kazakhstan)
Aizhan MEDETBEK (Nazarbayev Intellectual School Pavlodar, Kazakhstan)


‘Improvement’, ‘best practices’, ‘lessons from abroad’, ‘combatting problems’ – these have become one of the most common ‘buzzwords’ in the recent decade of reforming Ukrainian higher education (Gorobets, 2011). A lot has been done but there are still many remaining and emerging problems that the Ukrainian university faces (Danilko, 2014). Most of the research to date approaches the issue of reforming Ukrainian higher education by investigating, not surprisingly, the higher education context (e.g., Kovtun and Stick, 2009; Kovacs, 2014).

Our research is related to the body of literature that takes a slightly different stance. We aim to inform the higher education reform in Ukraine by considering the paramount role of pre-university schooling for an efficient work of university (e.g., Fimyar, 2010). More specifically, we aim to do so by drawing lessons from the pre-university schooling reform in Kazakhstan. The education context of Kazakhstan, arguably, has many similarities with that of Ukraine. Both countries shared a long history of the Soviet rule in all areas of life, education being one of them. Both countries have been experiencing similar tendencies in education after the collapse of the Soviet Union – for instance, Europeanisation through the Bologna Process (Heyneman and Skinner, 2014).

Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS)

In 2008, at the initiative of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, a project of creation the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS) had been launched. Intellectual Schools are called to become an experimental platform of modern models of educational programs by level: elementary school, primary school and high school.

In order to develop an academic freedom and autonomy for the implementation of innovative educational programs and research projects, the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On the status of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools” was adopted on January 19, 2011. This status presupposes a right to approve own educational curricula, establish requirements for entrance exams, ongoing monitoring of progress and final certification.

As of December 20th 2016, there were 20 Intellectual Schools functioning in all regional centers, with 13 824 learners attending. A total of 16,580 candidates took part in the two-step selection assessments in 2016, with 3 220 of them entering NIS by receiving  the Orken First President of Kazakhstan Scholarship. Therefore, those students who got accepted earned an opportunity to learn for free. Those who were not accepted, continued studying at regular schools.

Research in the field of NIS is limited, as NIS is an experimental curriculum. An example of what has been written about NIS in Kazakhstan is a publication by Bridges (2014) entitled “Education Reform and Internationalization: The Case of School Reform in Kazakhstan”. This book concludes that if NIS schooling system proves effective, it will most likely be introduced into other general education schools in Kazakhstan. Our research takes the argument in that book further and aims to determine whether the NIS system is effective.

What follows next is background to our research questions outlined later. This contextualisation relies largely on Bridges (2014).

The assessment systems in traditional and Nazarbayev Intellectual schools are very different. In traditional schools, students are assessed on a 5-point scale. However, in NIS there are only two grades, such as ‘Achieved’ and ‘Working towards’. That is, if student’s performance is at 80 percent  then the student automatically gets the grade ‘Achieved’. When a student makes more mistakes, this means the students get the grade ‘Working towards’. In case of getting ‘Working towards’, students have only one attempt to resubmit the assessment and obtain the grade ‘Achieved’. To resubmit the assessment, the student comes to a teacher to ask for an explanation of what is hampering the progress and takes additional tasks. Of course, the resubmission of the assessment depends on the student.

At traditional schools, students are taught only in two languages. These are the Kazakh and the Russian languages. However, in the NIS system, English is another language. We assume that the students at NIS benefit from mastering the language which is considered a world language. Knowing English very well gives NIS graduates a great opportunity to enroll in foreign universities. In the NIS system, most subjects are taught in English with foreign teachers. There are different extracurricular activities with these foreign teachers too.

Along with regular courses, NIS curriculum has integrated courses, designed according to multidisciplinar approach. The course Global Perspectives Project Work (GPPW) taught is an example of integrated courses. Designed by the University of Cambridge and taught in NIS schools only, GPPW allows learners to  develop research, thinking, reasoning and communication skills by following an approach to analysing and evaluating arguments and perspectives called the Critical Path. Students are required to develop an individual project on any topic they choose for half an academic year. Research starts with completing an introduction and  context of a study, followed by aims, methods, results and all other steps of conducting a research.

International Examinations are a big part of the preparation for university. Learners of Grade 12 of Intellectual Schools take IELTS (International English Testing System), an annual international exam which identifies the quality and level of their English language. In the 2015-2016 academic year, 2071 graduates from 16 Intellectual Schools took the IELTS exam. The average score for all of the schools was 5.8.  52% of all graduates have an average score of 6 and more, with 11% gaining the very high result of 7 and above. Along with the Kazakh language, English proficiency has also been introduced into the Qualification Criteria of teachers.  SAT International Examination is not compulsory for the students of NIS. However, any graduate can take SAT-1, SAT-2 or TOEFL if he or she wishes to do so.

Research questions

Our research was guided by the following research questions:

1) What are the perspectives of NIS teachers and students on the potential of NIS education to prepare competitive students for universities?

a. Is criteria-based assessment of students’ academic achievements better than the traditional 2-5 grading scale?

b. What benefits does trilingualism in NIS curricular and extracurricular activities provide?

c. What advantages can the new integrated courses of NIS schools: “Kazakhstan in Modern World”, “Global Perspectives and Research”, “Economics”, “Literature” give?

d. What are the advantages of passing SAT, TOEFL (optional), Cambridge examinations and IELTS (mandatory)?

2) How can Kazakhstani experience with NIS inform higher education reform in Ukraine?


To answer these research questions, data  was collected through an online survey and interviews.  The survey targeted students of the 11th grade. The tool SurveryMonkey was used.. This research method makes the sample opportunistic to a great extent, which yielded 30 respondents who wished to answer the survey.. Survey questions were clustered around the research questions. Five interviews were conducted with students (2), teachers (1) and school administrators (2) to further discuss the survey results.

We used mixed methods for data analysis. We used quantitative analysis of the survey close-ended responses, and we used qualitative (thematic) analysis of the answers to a couple of open-ended questions that were included in the survey as well as of all the interviews, after they were transcribed, using edited transcript type..

Findings in brief

According to the survey results, most of the respondents claim that criteria-based assessment in NIS is more effective than 2-5 grading scale in traditional schools. Also the results of survey showed us that different extracurricular activities, trilingualism and integrated course in NIS influence respondents in a positive way. Respondents state that all three languages are used during their study. Moreover, about 80% of our respondents believe that they need IELTS more than other foreign exams and preparing for this improves their English level.

The results of the interviews support the results of the survey, as 4 respondents out of 5 claim that criteria-based assessment of student achievement is more beneficial and advantageous than traditional 2-5 grade assessment system. It is interesting to note that only one respondent did not agree with the opinion mentioned above. This respondent states that ‘criteria-based assessment is not better, or more advantageous, but more modern’.

A general trend can also be seen in the responses of interviewees on trilingualism in NIS. All respondents see an obvious advantage in the trilingual system of education. Despite some drawbacks, they claim that ‘benefits of learning three languages certainly outweigh the disadvantages’. Interviewees consider an opportunity of learning three different cultures and having access to enormous database written in English language very beneficial.

There is a slightly different approach of respondents towards integrated subjects taught in NIS. Some of them think that due to the fact of ‘not having pure science today’, more and more subjects should be integrated. However, others claim that we should also consider the fact of rational workload, as integrated subjects such as biochemistry and biophysics, for instance, are very complicated.

Discussion and conclusion

We believe that NIS in Kazakhstan with its free education for the most talented students and it’s accessibility and meritocracy is a good example for the post-Soviet education context of Ukraine. This discussion is relevant in response to our second research question.

Sceptics might argue that NIS is nothing brand-new in the Ukrainian context, and a similar initiative is already in place in Ukraine. On one hand, yes, there is a number of private schools in Ukraine, some of which are called international (e.g., Pechersk School International). These school use English as a medium of instruction, they have foreign curriculum (e.g., British International School). However, the key difference between these schools and NIS is price-driven rather than solely meritocracy-driven education in these Ukrainian schools. These schools are not free of charge for students, they are very expensive (Tryukraine, 2017), unlike the NIS system. Moreover, most of the international schools in Ukraine gravitate toward the capital – Kyiv (Tryukraine, 2017). This poses significant limits on accessibility.

We are not suggesting that NIS is ‘the solution’ for all the problems in education in Ukraine, and that Ukraine should  blindly copy the NIS initiative. What we are suggesting is that the Kazakhstan initiative could be taken in Ukraine as a platform to develop some of the most positive aspects of this that are applicable to the Ukrainian context, such as accessibility and meritocracy. How exactly to do it is a fruitful area of further research and activities of Ukrainian academics and policy-makers.


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The paper was reported at the conference “Scientific and pedagogical innovations without institutional reforms? Analysis of failures and strategic challenges in developing a high-quality Ukrainian university” (June 1-3, 2017, Kyiv, Ukraine)