ZOiS Spotlight 29/2022

Education Under Fire: The Ukrainian School System Under Occupation

by Tatiana Zhurzhenko 07/09/2022
"Welcome to the land of knowledge" is written on this bombed-out school in Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine. Anastasia Magazova

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

War has now been raging in Ukraine for more than half a year. Almost every aspect of life has been affected by the Russian invasion, including the Ukrainian education system, which has faced immense challenges since the war began, especially in areas under occupation. The Russian invasion on 24 February interrupted teaching half-way through the school year. When martial law was declared, schools and other educational establishments were closed and the children were initially given a two-week break. When it became apparent in March that the war was not about to end any time soon, the Education Ministry recommended that teaching be moved online wherever this was technically feasible. If this was not possible, schools should focus on providing psychological support to the children; teachers were also encouraged to keep students and their families informed about local developments and evacuation options and play their part in organising civil defence. Although teaching has partly resumed in the meantime, the problems faced in the 2021/22 academic year are unlike anything the education system has experienced since the Second World War. In May 2022, 800 schools were located in areas under Russian occupation. Countless school buildings have been damaged or destroyed, and according to figures from Ukraine’s Education Ombudsman, around 26,000 Ukrainian teachers are currently outside the country, as are some 700,000 to 1.5 million school-age children.

Resistance through distance learning

In areas of particularly intense fighting such as Mariupol, continuing with schooling was inconceivable. Elsewhere in the occupied areas, the local authorities came under pressure to reopen schools because the occupying forces were keen to signal a return to ‘normality’ and celebrate the ‘peace’ that Russia had supposedly bestowed on local citizens. In this situation, online learning – introduced by Ukrainian schools during the two years of the pandemic – was not just a pragmatic solution but an act of passive resistance which allowed the direct influence of the occupying forces to be circumvented, at least temporarily. In early April, the Education Ministry officially permitted schools to decide for themselves when the academic year should end, depending on local conditions. Schools were also instructed to move all students up to the next class and suspend end-of-year examinations. Terminating the school year early in the occupied areas was also a strategy for avoiding pressure to collaborate.

For the 2021/22 school year, the national school-leaving examination – which is widely regarded as one of the most successful reforms in Ukraine and has done much to reduce corruption in the education sector – was adapted to the new situation. The centralised examinations in four disciplines were replaced by a single examination which was held in non-occupied areas of Ukraine and in other European countries. Three separate dates were scheduled to allow more flexibility. On the first scheduled date in July, 187,000 candidates sat the examination at 250 locations in Ukraine and in 40 European cities. Each examination centre was equipped with computers and staffed by qualified Ukrainian teachers. Despite some points of criticism, the Ukrainian government showed impressive skill in mastering a challenge of this magnitude.

Education as a weapon of war

By bringing forward the end of the school year, Kyiv has gained some time. It is under massive pressure, because control and de-Ukrainianisation of the education system are priorities for the occupation authorities. In occupied areas, classes ought to be taught in Russian and the curriculum aligned to the Russian school system; this applies especially to the teaching of history. But it is not only about language, curricula and education standards. Under Moscow’s plans, schools are to play a key role in the ideological indoctrination of children, moulding them into ‘Russian patriots’ and Putin supporters. This makes education a crucial battleground in the current war. The legislation on collaboration with Russia, introduced in March 2022, therefore establishes criminal liability for spreading an aggressor state’s propaganda in educational establishments and supporting its education agenda. The Ministry of Reintegration recommends that teachers suspend classes as soon as it becomes impossible to maintain Ukrainian standards, and pledges that teachers will continue to be paid under these circumstances. Although assisting with the introduction of Russian education standards is defined as collaboration under the law, no penalty is imposed if teachers are subjected to coercion. The Education Ministry calls for cases of this nature to be documented, along with collection of evidence of coercion.

Since the start of the new school year, the Moscow-appointed authorities have intensified pressure on teaching staff and head teachers to align with Russian educational standards. School governors are being threatened; some have been abducted. If head teachers are unwilling to collaborate, they are replaced by persons loyal to Russia with or without the necessary qualifications. However, as very few local teachers are willing to collaborate, volunteers are being recruited from Russia. According to the independent Russia media outlet Mediazona, more than 200 teachers from Russia have volunteered so far. Parents are also coming under pressure: there are reports of parents being threatened with deprivation of their parental rights if they refuse to register their children with a Russian-controlled school.

Russification of the school system

Mariupol is a particularly striking example. Soon after Russia seized control of this devastated and depopulated city, the occupation authorities announced that the school year would be extended until 1 September; they also organised summer courses for the children who remained in the city in order to ‘improve their Russian language skills’. By May, the occupying forces had identified just 53 teachers who were prepared to collaborate – in a city whose population had numbered half a million before the invasion. Teachers from Mariupol who were willing to collaborate were sent to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don for retraining; after completing the programme, they were awarded an official ‘diploma’ as teachers of Russian and Russian history. In order to make up for the shortage of teaching staff, teachers and educators were sent to Mariupol from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. There are, simultaneously, numerous initiatives by teachers who were forced to flee Mariupol and wish to continue teaching according to Ukrainian standards. One is a private ‘lyceum’ set up by teachers from Mariupol’s School No. 56, which provides lessons for children regardless of their place of residence.

Online learning is not a permanent solution, however. It depends on access to the Internet, poses problems for working parents with younger children and may well put families at risk as soon as the occupation authorities start sanctioning Ukrainian ‘underground’ schools.

In 2017, Ukraine made a successful start on the comprehensive reform of its school system, aimed at bringing the system into line with European standards. It has made significant progress in this direction, despite the unprecedented challenges posed soon afterwards by the Covid pandemic and now the war. No matter how long the war lasts, education – and, with it, the future of Ukraine – must not become one of its victims.

Dr Tatiana Zhurzhenko is a researcher at ZOiS, where she works on the project ‘The Liberal Script in Ukraine’s Contested Border Regions’.