Education in the context of war. How we support the Ukrainian education systemPublished: Sep 3, 2023 Reading time: 7 minutes
Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has caused severe damage to the Ukrainian education system. As a result of the hostilities and occupation, school staff suffered casualties, and hundreds of schools were destroyed or damaged. Furthermore, millions of children and thousands of Ukrainian teachers were forced to relocate, either within the country or abroad.
In Ukraine, teachers and their students continue to endure the challenges of the war: air raids, interruptions in the educational process, the transition to distance or blended learning, power outages, and restrictions on activities for security reasons. The war has worsened access to education, exacerbated existing educational inequalities, reduced the quality of the educational process and student performance, and affected the psycho-emotional state of children, teachers, and parents. At People in Need [PIN], we support Ukrainian schoolchildren. With EU financial support, we have already supported educational institutions in 7 oblasts of Ukraine (Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Kherson).
Sumy Oblast has suffered greatly because of the war and is still suffering today. Communities in the north of the oblast are subjected to regular shelling and attacks. As many as 139 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged in the region. In March 2023, 2 schools were destroyed by air strikes and shelling—in Bilopillia and Vyry. In August, a school in Romny was utterly destroyed. Okhtyrka, Lebedyn and Trostianets also faced large-scale destruction of educational facilities when Russia occupied them at the start of the invasion.
Iryna Bondarenko, Director of Trostianets City Council Secondary School No. 5, was able to safely inspect her school only after Trostianets was liberated. The consequences of the occupation and hostilities were terrible. There was so much destruction that the staff was left depressed. Iryna began to apply to all the foundations and organisations whose contacts she could find. That's how the staff of the school #5 in Trostianets came in contact with us and the "Ukraine Education Response Consortium: Safe Return to Learning".
"This is the largest school in the city, so we had a lot of work to do. It was cold in our school, so they [PIN] installed heating and replaced 178 radiators. They installed 500 m2 of plastic windows, replacing the wooden ones that were damaged during the occupation. We restored the building in parts, starting with the junior school and moving on to the middle and senior schools. This is the kind of cooperation in which the principal's requests are heard, and the needs of the staff are understood," Iryna recalls.
From August 2022 to August 2023, similar repairs were carried out in 19 educational institutions in Sumy Oblast: in the cities of Lebedyn, Shostka, Trostianets, Konotop, Sumy and the villages of Ulianivka, Buimer, Malyi Vystorop, Mykolaivka. We repaired 12 buildings and 7 shelters, allowing more than 8,000 schoolchildren to return to school. Previously, during emergencies, school groups had to either move to the shelter of the nearest building or study in shifts, calling as many children to class as could fit in the shelter simultaneously.
Olha Panasovska, the principal of Mykolaivka Lyceum, is happy to give a tour of the renovated school's shelter: "A medical room has been set up here, with a nurse. Then, there are separate sanitary rooms for boys and girls. At the same time, all the communication pipes in this shelter have been updated: heating and sewerage. Also, artificial ventilation was installed, and classrooms were equipped for the schoolchildren. Each classroom is designed to fit 48 students and two teachers."
The Be Smart Digital Learning Centres (DLCs) we opened in Sumy Oblast in April 2023 are a logical continuation of the project. Children from six communities in the oblast gained access to active learning and recreation centres. In the first 4 months of operation, they were visited by more than 1700 children.
Each Be Smart centre has activities and functional areas divided by recreation and education. Children who want to attend online lessons study in the learning area. In the recreational area, students can choose their own activities: attend workshops, art studios or game events, and talk to a psychologist or peers. Facilitators provide comprehensive assistance to children and adjust the programme activities according to their needs. All facilitators have specialised education and experience in working with children and are trained in safety and work standards in DLCs. Be Smart classes are organised, so children can learn new skills, maintain their knowledge levels, and experience the joy of childhood.
Tetiana Pinchuk and her 8-year-old son Denys left the Marinka district of Donetsk Oblast due to the constant danger and heavy shelling. At the end of April 2022, the family arrived in Krolevets. At this point, it became clear that loud noises, constant fear, and living in the basement deeply impacted Denys' emotional state. The family found help at the Be Smart Centre, where a psychologist and facilitators approached Denys.
"My son looks forward to coming here. There is such a homely atmosphere, and he calms down and develops. He used to talk only about the war, and now he talks about his new friends and crafts he made in the classroom," says Tetiana.
This summer, all 10 Be Smart DLCs continued to operate as day camps. About 1,300 children attended workshops and film clubs or participated in quests and excursions. In addition to learning and being entertained, the children received vital psychosocial support from our psychologists. We also provided the children with experience and knowledge that are relevant right now, such as introductory classes on first aid and mine awareness.
The facilitators traditionally built their schedule and class plans on the requests and needs of the most demanding audience, the children. For example, in Konotop, Be Smart guests had the opportunity to learn about a popular art form—analogue photography. Children aged 10-16 were treated to a photography masterclass by the well-known Ukrainian photographer and documentary filmmaker Andrii Boiko.
During the three days of intensive training, the children went through every stage of creating a film photographic masterpiece, from finding an object and angle to the chemical magic of developing and printing the photos. The number of questions from future photographers surprised the workshop organisers.
"Everything was very well organised; the guest speaker explained everything clearly. I really liked that the speakers explained everything not in scientific terms, but in a language we could understand," says 15-year-old training participant Oleksandr.
During the photography session, the children demonstrated their interest, curiosity for experimentation, and remarkable talent for working with the camera. The participants' creative searches proved that a child's view of ordinary things is always unique. Andrii observed the students' work and noted that photography has healing properties by evoking genuine emotions and joy.
The magic began at the end of the class: light and darkness, the students, and chemical ingredients all combined to create the long-awaited photos. Following Andrii's advice and safety rules, the children developed the negatives and printed their works using an analogue enlarger.
The results of the workshop inspired all the participants. Now, the adults plan to select several of the most compelling works, which may be used to create a photo exhibition. At the same time, the children expressed a desire to continue developing skills that may turn into a profession in the future.
One participant, 14-year-old Oleksandra, told us that she "really liked everything. Especially when the photos were developed and printed. I really hope you will come to us again. I would like to see more workshops related to photography. Otherwise, everything is great and interesting; keep it up".
The three-day photography training, funded by the European Union, is just one chapter in the summer's story. A few days later, a similar event was held in the DLC in Baryshivka, which is run by Save the Children, our partner in the project "Education Consortium in Ukraine: Safe Return to Learning" - Finn Church Aid, Save the Children, War Child and local partners EdCamp and Istok.
This summer, the project became known in Europe. Janek Rubeš, a well-known Czech journalist and influencer, visited to see the support provided by the Education Consortium to the Ukrainian education system. On his way, Janek saw the damage caused by Russia's war against the Ukrainian people and visited the schools we were rebuilding after the shelling.