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Schools to drive democracy change in Ukraine

The Ukrainian Schools for Democracy Programme will be at the World Forum for Democracy 2016, demonstrating how it supports democratic reforms in secondary education.

Iryna Sabor
25 October 2016
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European Wergeland Centre photo. All rights reserved.Amidst economic turmoil, security threats and war in the east, Ukraine is facing times of social change. Three years ago Ukrainian society voiced a demand for a modern state based on democracy, human rights and rule of law. Since the historical winter of 2013-2014, the country has been investing much effort in introducing democratic reforms into its society.

Democratic culture and education

How does a country in transition succeed in democracy? Ukrainians learned their lesson during 25 years of independence. The Soviet mode of thinking cannot be shaken off by modern legislation and new institutions alone. Democracy is not imposed by cabinets from on high. Respect for human dignity, equality and participation is an everyday personal choice shaping a societal culture as a whole. It is the people’s mindset, values and practices that drive change.

No wonder that Ukraine is now talking about the centrality of education. There are over 20,000 schools in the country and most of them struggle in an insufficiently democratic learning environment. Yet schools do not only reflect the norms prevailing in society, they can model its future too.

Yet schools do not only reflect the norms prevailing in society, they can model its future too.

As the initial institution of socialization, school fosters democratic change by raising new generations that share democratic values, participate in democracy and respectfully interact with others. More and more school systems in the world recognize democratic competences as key learning outcomes, as reflected in the Council of Europe recommendation and its new Framework for democratic competences. In 2018, the new tests of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment will also be looking into such competences as respect, responsibility, and openness to cultural diversity.

The New Ukrainian School

Ukraine is keeping pace. The government has declared school reform one of its top priorities in the coming years. The recent New Ukrainian School concept outlines a revolutionary vision of secondary education with a focus on school and teacher autonomy, the development of competences for life, a value-based education, and a partnership between students, teachers and parents. The draft Law on Education has been approved in its first reading, and opens the way for the decentralization of governance and a new structure of schooling, with new content. To facilitate these reforms, the European Wergeland Centre and Ukraine’s Ministry of Education jointly launched the Schools for Democracy programme.

To facilitate these reforms, the European Wergeland Centre and Ukraine’s Ministry of Education jointly launched the Schools for Democracy programme. It is aimed at democratic change in schools by strengthening the culture of democracy. The programme offers training, school workshops and support for school transformation projects. It is currently bringing 32 schools into this programme, and will expand to over 100 next year.

One of the goals is to grow from a programme into a new philosophy of schooling. For these purposes, participants are encouraged to embed democratic citizenship education into the whole planning and development of their schools.

A ‘whole school approach’ to democratic citizenship education

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European Wergeland Centre photograph. All rights reserved.For almost a year now the round table has become the symbol of the programme. As one of participants noted, the school planning workshop was “the first time we all sat together and discussed our problems and interests openly”. Before this, all decisions were taken behind closed doors.

The participation of all stakeholders in school life, including students, teachers, administration, parents and local community, is critical. Stronger ownership makes changes more sustainable. Stronger ownership makes changes more sustainable.

Democratic values may remain empty slogans if they are not translated into practice. Everyday experience is the best way to learn democracy. So schools are supported as they assess their needs, plan and introduce changes in most areas of school life, from policies and procedures, governance, curriculum, teaching methods to relations with the local community. A special Tool for School Development has been drafted to help structure this process.

Democratic transformations bottom up

Influential parent, teacher and other grassroots initiatives have become leaders in best practise for the democratic development of schools. Many will admit that the lack of comprehensive democratic citizenship education has triggered some of the considerable challenges Ukraine is facing. Some people call for a postponement of such “soft” issues as a democratic school for better times.

Paradoxically, there is huge resistance to change both at the grassroots and state level. Some people call for a postponement of such “soft” issues as a democratic school for better times. Whereas, a safe inclusive environment is needed now as never before, when 60,000 internally displaced children go to school, many suffering from psychological trauma, including 1798 children who have lost their fathers in combat.

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European Wergeland Centre photo. All rights reserved.Distrust in democratic institutions is one of the deep-rooted grievances nurturing resistance to change. Schools for Democracy confronts this resistance with empowerment. It gives schools a practical vision of how to address real life problems and it equips learners with democratic competences.

The programme’s baseline research shows that half the schools did not have functional school self-governance. After half a year in the programme, a range of schools have introduced new procedures to involve students and parents in decision-making, giving more voice to student councils.

The same study reveals that most schools use codes of conduct, mission statements and even planning documents for reporting only. Participating schools have chosen to fight against their “cosmetic democracy” by drafting school documentation anew, this time designing “living” instruments. Melitopol school, for example, has changed its Statutes, involving all its stakeholders in this process.

Another challenge is admitting problems, rather than sweeping them under the carpet. Nearly all the schools participating in the programme chose to claim that their students do not face discrimination. Whereas, according to the Children Ombudsman, every second child is bullied at school, and around one third of school children regularly experience violence. Programme trainers hold awareness-raising trainings on bullying, hate speech and violence in schools, to encourage the introduction of anti-discrimination procedures. According to the Children Ombudsman, every second child is bullied at school, and around one third of school children regularly experience violence.

Also the lowly status of teachers has been found to be a barrier preventing change. In the baseline study, we found out that 68% of teachers seldom applied interactive teaching methods. Now many of them report that trainings in a democratic classroom approach have strongly increased their professional motivation.

Schools inspire through their grassroots innovation, influencing policy-making. They have taken the first steps in responsibility for their own development, thus building the new Ukraine school by school themselves: not from above, but from within.

Solidarity across regions

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European Wergeland Centre photo. All rights reserved.Another goal of the programme is to strengthen cohesion between the different regions in Ukraine. A poor economy and post-colonial habits still curb Ukrainians’ mobility. According to the 2015 KIIS survey, 77% of Ukrainians have never travelled abroad, and 36% never visited other regions in Ukraine. This, in turn, nurtures myths, stereotypes and prejudices.

Joint trainings and online networking in the programme are designed to unite participants from all over Ukraine and provide safe arenas for dialogue. Participants get an opportunity to see that all of them struggle with the same challenges. In the course of the programme they support each other and become inspired by those who succeed. “The programme is creating a democratic snowball effect, which eventually will reach every school in Ukraine.”

For example, one school head from Slovyansk proudly speaks of their achievements in democratic governance, and then shows the traces of bombing still on the school building. Or a small school in Desna's newly amalgamated community, their hands full with administrative reform, nevertheless pushes local authorities into youth co-governance and establishes a new Youth Council.

Next year our schools will gather for a conference to team up as democratic multipliers, bridge local initiatives and share best practice across the country. As Tetyana Filipenko, teacher trainer from Donetsk region, put it, “the programme is creating a democratic snowball effect, which eventually will reach every school in Ukraine”.

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