Welcoming and supporting Ukrainian refugees in your school

Written by: Sheila Hopkins | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Of the more than 126,500 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in the UK since the war began, a third are children. How can schools welcome and support them? Sheila Hopkins advises and signposts to resources to help

“When my daughter, Veronika, left Ukraine, she left everything behind: first and foremost, she left her dad, she left her favourite toys, her neighbourhood, her friends and her teacher. Leaving all of that behind abruptly without having a chance to say goodbye was very traumatic.”
Ukrainian mother

According to the UN Refugee Agency (2022), the current war in Ukraine has led to almost six million refugees since February 24 this year, with approximately half of these people estimated to be children.

Many refugees live with the stress of the unknown, carry trauma, and are in fear of what might happen to their loved ones back home – especially as males aged 18 to 65 have been required to stay. The situation is volatile and changes day by day.

It is within this context that schools in the UK are welcoming large numbers of Ukrainian children and families. Those who arrive will have entered the country through one of three government schemes (Home Office, 2022):

  • Family scheme – allows applicants to join family members in the UK.
  • Sponsor scheme – allows Ukrainian nationals to come to the UK if they have a sponsor under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme.
  • Extension scheme – allows Ukrainian nationals to apply for permission to stay if they were in the UK with immigration permission on March 18, 2022.

As of August 2022, the official data (Home Office, 2022) shows that more than 126,500 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the UK since the war began, with nearly one-third of those being children.

Ukrainians have been an integral part of British society since the end of the Second World War. Many who arrived at that time established Ukrainian cultural centres to help maintain a sense of tradition, identity and social bond. Today, seven such centres remain (London, Luton, Reading, Coventry, Nottingham, Bradford and Manchester – see resources below for links). Most of these offer supplementary Ukrainian schooling and providing valuable resources for families and schools alike.

Recently, The Bell Foundation invited Lina Maksymuk from the Nottingham Ukrainian Cultural Centre to share her expertise on the Ukrainian context with schools as they prepare for new arrivals. In part, this article summarises the information from her webinar (see Bell Foundation, 2022).

Ukrainian education system

Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine’s education system teaches democratic principles, civic engagement, and human rights. Ukrainian, the official language, is used as the primary language of instruction. Very few schools still use Russian, and this continues to decline.

Major reforms to the education system took place in 2018 (Friedman & Trines, 2019), moving from a traditional, lecture-based system to one that allows for more teacher autonomy, implements a competency-based national curriculum, and has an additional year of schooling (from 11 to 12 years).

Reform has been hampered by Covid and the war, so it is likely that newly arrived pupils may still be accustomed to a traditional setting. Therefore, new arrivals may find such things as self-assessment, peer review, critical reflection, and collaborative group work to be new concepts.

In the Ukrainian system there are three stages of schooling: two compulsory stages and a third which is required for access to higher education, and in which a large majority of pupils participate.

Each stage consists of similar subject areas as the UK and ends with national exams. Typically, all three stages are held in the same school building.

  • Stage 1: Primary. Years 1 to 4. Ages 6 to 9.
  • Stage 2: Basic secondary. Year 5 to 9. Ages 10 to 14.
  • Stage 3: Upper secondary. Year 10 to 12. Ages 15 to 17.

A 12-point grading system is used, and pupils are accustomed to several hours of homework every night.

  • Grades 1-3: Unsatisfactory
  • Grades 4-6: Satisfactory
  • Grades 7-9: Good
  • Grades 10-12: Excellent

English is taught from year 1, although learners may still find academic language and pronunciation difficult. Also from year 1, pupils are provided with textbooks for each subject area and parents expect children to bring these home every night. Pupils and parents alike may wonder why textbooks are not more prevalent in UK schools.

Ukrainian parents naturally want their children to excel in school. Given Ukraine’s past history and generational hardship, many Ukrainians were unable to achieve their full academic potential. It is natural then for parents to want the best educational opportunities for their children and to expect high achievement.

This can lead to an element of perfectionism in young people and a sense of nervousness when mistakes are made. This should not be considered as problematic but rather a normal cultural quality.

The Ukrainian education system has worked hard to minimise the disruption to education at this difficult time and to stay connected to displaced learners.

The Ukrainian National Curriculum is offered free online (see further information), and many young people will likely maintain their studies in Ukraine while simultaneously attending school in the UK.

Ukrainian language

Ukrainian is a Slavic language and uses the Cyrillic alphabet which consists of 33 letters. Some letters may look similar to the Latin alphabet used in English, however certain pronunciations are different, and this can be confusing to learners (see Ukrainian Lessons, 2021).

Ukrainian is largely phonetic, meaning there is a one-to-one correspondence of letters to sounds, making reading and writing in Ukrainian relatively easy.

This is different from English, where a letter can have multiple sounds depending upon the word (e.g. the “c” in “circus”, “cat”, “chocolate”). Both languages consist of five vowels. Yet, whereas 20 sounds are associated with these in English, only five sounds correspond with them in Ukrainian. These differences can make pronunciation difficult for learners and cause some confusion with reading and spelling.

Articles are not used in Ukrainian sentences – for example, instead of saying, “I saw the cat” or “I saw a cat”, a learner might say, “I saw cat”. Likewise, there are no auxiliaries (i.e., can, should, did, etc.). For instance, when asking the question, “How do you do that?” a learner might say, “How you do that?”.

Right now, language is a sensitive issue in Ukraine. Some Ukrainians may primarily use Russian, others use only Ukrainian and still others speak both. By extension, such sensitivity concerning the use of different first languages may affect newly arrived pupils from Ukraine. It is important, therefore, to avoid making assumptions about the home language spoken by these learners and their families. If there are translation needs, consult with parents as to which language they and their child prefers to use.

Practical guidance for schools

It is important to recognise that the country is referred to as “Ukraine” and not “The Ukraine” (as it was prior to independence). Also, Ukrainians pronounce Kyiv as “keev” and not the Russian pronunciation as “Key-EV”. Make sure to use correct pronunciations and references to names and to brief your colleagues about this.

Be mindful that Ukrainian children do not carry a responsibility to inform UK pupils or teachers about the war or about Ukraine’s complex history with Russia.

Even though the war is on-going and is the reason why many families are here, Ukrainian children do not want to be identified by that alone. Learners will come with rich cultural traditions, talents and interests. Focus on developing individual and meaningful relationships.

Incorporate Ukrainian culture into your curriculum and/or conversations. Most visible traditions include Pysanka (Ukrainian egg painting), poetry, singing, dancing, and vyshyvka (embroidery). On Vyshyvanky, Ukrainians from all over the world wear embroidered shirts that are specific to their region. Introduce some Ukrainian words, learn about the country and welcome new arrivals in thoughtful ways.

Recognise that everyone has experienced the war differently. Some children may talk openly about it and others may prefer not to. Be respectful either way. Do not ask specific questions but be patient and ready to support learners when and if they feel secure to share.

Do not push a child to take part in fun or exciting activities when they are reluctant, as they may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (see NHS, 2022).

Do not push or expect friendships among Ukrainian and Russian children based on a shared language, as the political situation may be a factor.

You may want to introduce or warn children of any unexpected loud sounds, alarms, or whistles as these could trigger reactions.


It is best to take a holistic approach when welcoming Ukrainian refugees and to consider three areas of possible need.

First, learning needs. Identify the English language proficiency (see the Bell Foundation’s free EAL Assessment Framework) and language learning needs of new arrivals. Some pupils may have had interrupted schooling and will need additional support catching up. All new arrivals will need to adjust to a new learning environment and possibly some very different educational approaches.

Second, social needs. Teachers should foster a sense of belonging and bonding with new arrivals while helping them maintain a positive and strong personal identity. Communication with refugee families will need to be established early on.

Third, emotional needs. Unlike other new pupils, refugees may be coping with separation, loss and/or trauma. Establishing an environment where learners feel safe and secure is important. The resources below can help you prepare as you welcome newly arrived refugees.

  • Sheila Hopkins is a trainer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. For details, visit www.bell-foundation.org.uk. Read previous articles from The Bell Foundation's experts via https://bit.ly/htu-bell


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