‘New pupils from Ukraine don’t want to be ­celebrated as heroes’

CSG headteacher who moved to the UK from Kyiv says children should not be left feeling singled out

Thursday, 19th May — By Harry Taylor

kateryna law camden school for girls (29.7 x 21 cm) (1)

Camden School for Girls headteacher Kateryna Law was born in Ukraine

ALMOST immediately, as the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February, people started getting in touch with the Ukrainian-born headteacher of Camden School for Girls, Kateryna Law.

Since then, Ms Law, who moved to Sheffield from Kyiv aged nine, has been giving advice to refugee families who have arrived in the UK, whether they’re attending the school or not.

Some were prompted to contact her following her interview with the New Journal in October, after she had become headteacher, where she spoke about her background.

The school has already admitted some refugee children, but is constrained by limits on pupil numbers.

The 39-year-old said: “The conflict is very difficult for me personally, but being the headteacher of the school has given me a sense of purpose to help however I can in my position.

“We are doing everything we can support families. Even when I can’t accommodate families, or they aren’t asking me for a place, I try and help. I want Camden School for Girls to be a real place of support and advice for families. I believe schools have a place for that, even if they can’t accommodate the children.”

Ms Law refers to the school’s past of accepting German Jewish girls evacuated on the Kindertransport before the Second World War, and how it fits into the school’s ethos of “being inclusive and providing that education for pockets of the community which hadn’t had that education”.

She said that the children who have arrived at the school in Sandall Road are shell-shocked, and are still processing their surroundings, what they have been through, and what’s happening to their home country and the people who remain behind.

“I can relate to some aspects of their arrival when I did aged nine, not knowing the language, not knowing anybody,” she said. “But it’s not just about not knowing the language. It’s not knowing how to conduct yourself or behave, not just in school but cultural behaviour, not knowing how things are done or where things are. That’s a significant worry for students at the beginning.

“I’ve spoken to staff about how it will be quite difficult for the students in first few weeks, how they will stay quiet often, and they need to be given the chance to observe and process their surroundings, not just the language. Often students can take two to three months to process, so they will stay quiet, stay in the background and it’s only after then that teachers will be able to see other elements of their character coming out.”

She added: “It’s important for children to be treated in the same way. They don’t want to be singled out. They don’t want to be clapped on their way into school, as we have seen in some places, which was difficult to watch. They don’t want to be celebrated as heroes, because they never volunteered to be heroes. They’re here because they have to be, so being treated as any other child is really important.”

Ms Law has been using her Russian language skills to speak to students and families when needed, but emphasised the importance of the teenagers being immersed in the language to pick it up, saying that some already have a good grasp of English before coming to Camden.

For her, with family and friends still in the country, she describes the invasion as devastating and still very worrying.

The school ran a number of fundraisers to raise money, including bake sales and a culture day where students came in their national dress and brought in food.

She said: “It was hard to believe what was happening, but it wasn’t a surprise. The war in 2014 is certainly ongoing the entire time, but in the immediate year it was clear that it was going to take place. “Staff and students have been incredibly supportive. This has been a real haven of support for me, and staff, students, parents have all been coming forward without holding back, offering anything they can.”

She added: “I’ve talked about really looking out for members of the eastern European community. I think it’s affected all members of it, whether they are from Poland or Russia themselves. I’ve written to families saying we need to be sensitive to that, especially any negative behaviour towards students with Russian heritage.”

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