As the start of a new school year, September 1 is a really significant day in Ukraine – rather more so than in the UK.
Students bring flowers for their teachers and in state schools, children come dressed in vyshyvankas- traditional embroidered clothes. Schools hold the “ringing of the bell ceremony” as children file in for the first time in weeks and there is an atmosphere of hope and renewal.
This year at the British International School in Ukraine, September 1 was far more emotional and significant than usual, as it marked the first physical return of pupils to the school since Russia’s full-scale invasion began back in February.
We prepared meticulously for the day, the staff did a fantastic job and the school was crying out for children.
And when they arrived, there was nothing like it. To chat to them, to see them in their new uniforms, so full of joy and hope after months of online learning, was phenomenal.
“We spent some months remodelling our air raid shelters in preparation for the students’ return.”
Of course, things are still very different here, despite the air of normality and the strong evidence that Ukraine is winning this war.
We spent some months remodelling our air raid shelters in preparation for the students’ return. While air raids are now mercifully few and far between in Kyiv, we wanted to ensure the shelters were comfortable, providing chemical toilets and providing snacks, water, chairs, wifi and areas to lie down for younger children.
This morning the air raid siren went at the most inopportune time as the children were coming into school, but they were absolutely magnificent in terms of their self-discipline as they came down into the shelter. I was so proud of them.
Kyiv hasn’t been hit by missiles for a number of weeks but you can never become complacent and we take every siren seriously.
The student body at BISU has changed significantly too. Understandably numbers are reduced with about 50 per cent still learning online and 50 per cent on site.
But we are extremely hopeful as families have been coming back over summer. There’s more confidence in the safety of Kyiv and in Ukraine and more are signing up all the time. Some are joining online with a view to returning to Ukraine soon, while others are contemplating a physical return and we have enquiries every day. We have had many emails and calls from our families from all over Europe and beyond to offer support and reassure us of their plans to re-join BISU as soon as circumstances allow.
“Being able to provide continuity of education has been very symbolic, showing defiance and resilience.”
For some, only the practicalities of being outside the country are delaying their return to us – in some countries they are obliged to go to local schools, while in others the time difference is a problem.
Being able to provide continuity of education throughout the invasion has been very symbolic, showing defiance and resilience. Education will continue and that’s always been our pledge to the children and to Ukraine.
But I don’t want to give the impression that in these difficult circumstances we have not been continuing to develop our school. In some ways – as with Covid – the invasion has been a catalyst for exciting planned changes that would have taken much longer in normal conditions.
We’ve almost had a reboot, things that were maybe going to happen over one, two or three years have been brought forward.
We have introduced a new modular approach to learning and extended our offer in terms of curriculum with great partner schools, including City of London Freemen’s School, Oxford Education Online and King’s InterHigh.
It’s a real pleasure to be able to ask students what they want to study and provide it through these new arrangements, and we are proud to be able to offer subjects such as law and psychology.
The school is 25 years old but we are now looking at this year as the first of the next 25 and beyond.
“Every single one of our international teachers could have got a job somewhere else, but they didn’t.”
But what of our teaching staff? Our local teachers stayed behind to care for the school and students while our international teachers have been teaching from abroad.
Every single one of them could have got a job somewhere else but they stayed to support the school, even though it is not easy working alone from home.
One of our international teachers is back already and he’s physically in the classroom. We also have a couple of colleagues teaching from a base at the British International School of Tblisi in Georgia at the moment. We are extremely grateful to Stephen Priest and the school for allowing them to do that before they work out their return.
Which, I hope, will not be long. I don’t think there will be any reason to evacuate the country again. The Russians just aren’t going to get to Kyiv. It’s not propaganda, being here you genuinely know it to be true and recent events have simply confirmed this.
“You think there’s a normality then the reality of things comes and hits you like an express train.”
The sandbags in the streets have burst and the tank traps have been pushed out of the roadway. Shops are well stocked again and people are determined to go about their business as normal.
But it is hard to enjoy our new sense of normality because of what is happening in the south and the east of the country. For example, two of our colleagues in Dnipro and one in Kyiv have lost family members – you think there’s a normality then the reality of things comes and hits you like an express train.
But the pupils, who have showed incredible resilience, are what gives me hope for the future of the school and the country, whatever challenges each day brings.
Their resilience has been outstanding. It is wonderful to finally see them enjoying school, smiling and telling me what a great day they have had after such a long time away.