Spotlight on Ukraine 1

The Uncertain Education of Ukrainian Refugee Children

by Helen Pidgorna 22/11/2023

A survey of Ukrainian refugees with school-age children in Sweden shows that they waver between appreciation of their new educational experiences and a fear of falling behind with the Ukrainian curriculum. Because of uncertain future prospects, many try to live in both countries at once.

Ukrainian refugee children in class. IMAGO / CTK Photo

The full-scale war waged by Russia against Ukraine has caused millions of Ukrainians to seek refuge abroad. As of 10 October 2023, over 5.8 million Ukrainian refugees, mainly women and children, were scattered across Europe. The EU’s Temporary Protection Directive allows Ukrainians who are fleeing the war to apply for temporary residence in an EU member state. In 2022, almost 50,000 Ukrainian citizens applied for temporary protection in Sweden, nearly one-third of whom were minors under 18, including over 10,000 children of school age. Yet some sources report that in 2023, only 33,000 refugees from Ukraine have applied to extend their residence permits in Sweden beyond the one-year temporary protection status initially granted to them. Could children’s education be one of the reasons?

A study conducted from November 2022 to March 2023 explored the migration and education experiences of Ukrainian refugees with school-age children in Sweden. Like many displaced Ukrainians worldwide who have moved from one education system to another, Ukrainian families in Sweden have had to navigate schooling in both countries. After six to 12 months of living in Sweden, the refugees were ambivalent about Swedish schools and the shift in their children’s education trajectories: on the one hand, they appreciated the support and new schooling experiences they had received; but on the other, they expressed a fear of falling behind with the national curriculum back home.

Less pressure to achieve

Ukrainians in general are used to investing in their children’s education, not only in terms of money but also in terms of time and effort. Lilia from the Ternopil region, whose family now lives in Sweden, recalls spending hours helping her children do homework in Ukraine: ‘All those evenings that I spent over their books. So much of my health was put into it […] for them to keep up at their grammar school.’ In Sweden, her sons, aged nine and 12, attend a local school, and she feels her earlier efforts are being devalued: ‘It upsets me because the children have fallen behind so much. It is so easy for them now. They have lost interest.’

Schools in Sweden, unlike in Ukraine, have little expectation that parents or guardians will be academically involved in their children’s learning. Sweden’s compulsory school curriculum is not as densely packed with academic content as Ukraine’s, and there is seemingly less pressure on children to achieve. As Svitlana, a mother of two children aged seven and 11 from the Kherson region, explained, ‘The Swedish curriculum is far behind our Ukrainian one. What my son did in Year 1 in Ukraine, he is now doing in Year 5 here. I worry a lot about him slowing down.’ Similarly, Albina, whose nine-year-old son attended a private, fee-paying school in Kharkiv before the war and is now at a Swedish school, reflected, ‘He soon realised that no one would put pressure on him here, that he doesn’t need to try hard.’

More time for socialising and personal development

Dissatisfaction with the academic content of the Swedish curriculum is not universal: some parents have reconsidered their approach to schooling. Lilia, who tutored her children to keep up with the teachers’ expectations at their Ukrainian school, appreciates the absence of excessive pressure on children and parents in Sweden: ‘One very big disadvantage of Ukrainian education is the fact that you have to dedicate lots of time to it. Otherwise, there will be no result because the content is hard and there is a lot of it.’

Anna, whose three daughters studied at high-ranked schools in Kyiv and now attend school in Sweden, reflected on her changing attitude:

I observed all the children of my daughters’ ages and noticed how calm and non-aggressive they are here. Until the age of 12, they are all children. In Ukraine, it is very different. Here, the curriculum is more flexible and easier when children’s minds are being formed. It is not overburdened with very hard maths, for example. We should not be thinking that maths here is weaker. But it comes at the right time. When you are 12, you don’t need such an overwhelming curriculum.

Having a less academically dense curriculum allows Swedish schools to allocate more time to socialisation and developing students’ curiosity, communication skills, and environmental literacy. Ukrainian families are beginning to appreciate new learning experiences – from students working in mixed-age groups to solve complex problems to girls leading football teams – opportunities their children did not have back home.

An impossible double presence

The uncertainty that comes with Ukrainian refugees’ temporary protection status fuels their ambivalence towards their children’s educational experiences in Sweden. In the face of this uncertainty, many families cope by attempting to be present in both school systems at once. In the words of Lidia, mother of an eight-year-old from the Cherkasy region, ‘We are now learning online with the Ukrainian school because there is no guarantee that they will keep us here. Many people have kept their children in Ukrainian schools because we don’t know what will happen next.’

Studies on circular migration have researched the phenomenon of certain types of migrants being doubly present both in Ukraine and abroad. This type of migration requires an ‘impossible ubiquity’ as the migrant ‘must be present in spite of absence, and at the same time must continue to be completely present in the place where he or she is actually present.’ The status of temporary protection requires a similar impossibility from Ukrainian refugees.

Yet, the differences between the two systems are stark, and the prospects of those who attempt such a double presence are as yet unknown. As has been noted for circular migration, so-called ‘transnational bi-locality’ cannot be maintained for long and typically involves only one generation. The future trajectories of Ukrainian refugee children will be shaped by further developments in the temporary protection policy, the families’ social standing in Ukraine and abroad, and, no less importantly, the perceived symbolic value of each of the two contexts for the families and the children themselves.

Helen Pidgorna is a social scientist and fellow at the Ukraine Research Network@ZOiS, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.