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Tenacity in a time of crisis: “Education is part of the resistance”

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has significantly impacted Ukraine, and The British International School, Ukraine is no exception. The school has remained open during these uncertain times and serves as a place of refuge and even normalcy for the students online and in person.

We spoke with head of school David Cole, on how the school has adapted since the invasion to ensure school teaching has continued safely. He also reflected on the resilience of the students and staff in such times of crisis.

Can you tell us how the British International School has been impacted by and adapted to the invasion of Ukraine?

“Our commitment was always to stay in Ukraine because our community needs it. Many people cannot leave since they have family and jobs here. We had to take government advice, but our intention was always to open the school when it was safe to do so. The Ukrainian government advised the school that it could open, and one of the conditions was the availability of an air raid shelter.

Before the invasion, we had around 700 students enrolled. There are students residing in Ukraine as well as abroad and those in Kyiv are mostly Ukrainian. After the invasion, some staff and students had already moved abroad based on embassy recommendations. This meant we had teachers and students on every continent except Antarctica. However, most children and a considerable number of international staff were still here, along with most of the local staff. We had prepared evacuation plans in case of an emergency, and our top priority was always people’s safety.

When the invasion happened, things unfolded very quickly, and we had to evacuate staff and families. Within two working days, we had a virtual school up and running for safety purposes, thanks to our national teachers who were teaching online. Additionally, the experiences we had during COVID-19 prepared us quite well for the invasion. It helped us manage mental health issues and transition to online learning, which children were already used to by then.”

How has the ongoing war impacted the students and the wider school community?

“Our students are incredibly resilient. Many of the students have agreed that they will not be defined by this war. Although they are more aware of the circumstances, they seldom discuss it as they just wish to get on with their lives and be children. I find this reassuring and even humbling. That being said, the long-term impact of this war is still unclear, therefore, we need to ensure safety nets are in place for our students.

There is so much bravery and commitment among those who have stayed in Ukraine. As a school, I truly believe education is part of the resistance. The school’s reopening and the promotion of internationalism and multiculturalism are symbols of resistance providing continuity and normalcy which is what our community of students, parents, and staff needs. We can now get back to what is the ‘new normal’, which is as normal as it possibly can be in this situation.”

How did the school leadership ensure that the continuity of learning and teaching was maintained?

“We have partnerships with organizations like Oxford Education Online, Pamoja, and Kings InterHigh. Initially, it was quite difficult because they have their own way of working, but they have been phenomenal in helping us and accommodating our needs.

Through our partnerships, we realized the trend internationally is to bring local staff on and give them more responsibility as opposed to solely relying on foreigners like myself. We have in-house training for local staff who work closely with an international teacher mentor. Eventually, they will do their postgraduate certificate education, which is an investment in the future for not only the person and our school but also for Ukraine.”

How has the International Baccalaureate (IB) supported your school during the invasion?

“The IB has been fantastic. The invasion started in February just as our IB students were settling down and starting to prepare for their final exams. This was a major concern for us, but the IB made it a priority to support us. We were in contact with them almost immediately, discussing how we could make sure our students were not disadvantaged by the situation and how we could accommodate the different needs.

We have now encountered scenarios we have never faced before, but the IB has been there to help us figure it out. It is reassuring to know that we have outside support. It is also important to know that we haven’t been forgotten. I always share messages of support with our staff because one of the biggest concerns here is that this could become a forgotten war. Therefore, all the support is massively important to them.”

David Cole is a UK trained Headteacher with 30 years in education, of which 25 have been in senior leadership. After working in schools in the north-west of England, he moved into international education and has served schools in Africa, Europe, Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently Principal of The British International School, Ukraine; a group of three schools across two cities. He is a dedicated and motivated professional with the experience to bring about change and the vision to lead and inspire. He has an unshakable belief that the child must remain at the centre of all that we do and a personal goal of inspiring excellence in others in order for them to achieve lifelong success, happiness, tolerance and understanding. David has led or participated a range of school inspections and peer visits including Ofsted, CIS, COBIS and BSO.