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Hungary Ensures Schooling for Ukrainian Children – But How Will It Work?

Júlia Tar 2022.03.27.

The Hungarian government is offering schooling to minors fleeing from Ukraine to Hungary, the Human Resources Ministry announced on Wednesday. However, there are of course many questions about how this will be done.

Tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of children have arrived in Hungary since the war broke out in Ukraine. The majority have arrived with their mothers, since men between the ages of 18 and 60 cannot leave the country due to military service. Although many of the children have moved on to other countries with their families, Hungary still needs to prepare to provide education for tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugee children.

Even though there are already schools with refugee children, it is not possible to estimate how many families and children will be enrolled in Hungarian public education in the coming weeks and months, HVG reports. Even if they speak the language, it is certain that they were educated in a very different educational system from the Hungarian one. This, and several other aspects make it difficult for this situation to be solved.

Can all Ukrainian children go to school in Hungary?

Families applying for asylum in the country can send their children to local kindergartens and schools, the Human Resources Ministry stated. Secondary school students will also have an opportunity to take their final exams in Hungary, according to the statement. Some university students are also able to continue their studies here, as the University of Pécs and Corvinus University in Budapest have offered this opportunity.

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Ukrainian children who are not registered for asylum status but who have a residence permit of more than three months can also go to kindergarten or school here. Hungarian and Hungarian-Ukrainian dual nationals from Ukraine do not need to apply for asylum, as they are Hungarian citizens and therefore have the same rights as Hungarians living in Hungary, including the right to kindergarten and school education “as soon as they establish residence in Hungary,” Telex reports.

Language problems

Not surprisingly, while some children might speak Hungarian, others do not, and it is even possible that they are only familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet.

For children to learn Hungarian and integrate, schools will offer extra classes in the afternoons, while schools will receive an extra 130,000 forints (EUR 350) per child a month, the Ministry of Human Resources said.

The Ukrainian Metropolitan Municipality of Budapest is a very important partner in the care of refugees from Ukraine, and we have had several meetings with the head of the Municipality in recent days. We also have a joint program, a Saturday school for children from Ukraine, in which the capital city has committed to catering to 150 students this week,”

said Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, discussing the issue as well last week.

Some school authorities have already indicated to the schools that they can recruit extra teachers to cope with the extra workload of Ukrainian children.

Several religious schools have cooperated with each other to organize classes for refugee students arriving in Budapest, and many have agreed to accept refugee students into their institutions, although, HVG writes, religious and private schools are not obliged to admit students, while other schools are.

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Despite the help, language barriers still take time to overcome. Many people are also arriving from the inner Ukrainian regions – these families have Ukrainian or Russian mother tongues – and it is difficult to integrate the children, especially without specialists, language teachers, and teaching assistants. HVG reports that the situation is even more difficult for Roma families where the children do not speak Hungarian or even Ukrainian. Special programs should be launched for them, experts say.

Ildikó Schmidt, who teaches methodology courses related to the teaching of Hungarian as a foreign language at the Károli Gáspár Reformed University, says:

Until now, we have ignored the fact that there are and have been children in our schools who do not speak Hungarian (Afghan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Palestinian, etc.), but now we are finally starting to think about it. It just goes to show that our sensitivity to problems increases in times of threat. It is not really a question of what we do with Ukrainian children, but what we do with children who do not speak Hungarian.”

She also believes that the most urgent task is to involve teachers of Hungarian as a foreign language in teaching. In Schmidt’s experience, children, especially those under the age of 10-12, start the language learning process quite quickly. It is a little more difficult for older children, but with a higher numbers of lessons, they quickly learn the language in an integrated environment.

At József Bem Elementary School in Kőbánya, for example, many Chinese, Vietnamese, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Iranian children attend (and have attended in the past), and for years they have had to adapt to the fact that non-Hungarian-speaking students are admitted to their classes. As Judit Gál, the principal said, in each of these cases they try to create an individual timetable for the children that ensures the learning of Hungarian. “If a sixth-grade child arrives who does not speak Hungarian, we do not put him or her in the grade with his or her naturalized certificate, but one grade down, or in a grade where he or she does not need to be officially assessed because he or she has a valid certificate from that grade. So he can concentrate on learning Hungarian.” It is not yet known whether this will be the procedure for Ukrainian children in schools, but according to the Ministry of Human Resources, “the head of the institution decides which class the child will be placed in, based on the age of the pupil and his/her previous studies.”

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They do this with the help of a teaching assistant and 1-2 other teachers who teach the child a language instead of lessons that he or she would not understand if they didn’t speak it. Skills (PE, singing, art), English, and IT lessons are taught to them as well. But not all schools have teaching assistants and Hungarian as foreign language teachers.

There is hope, however: Schmidt says that they train 20-30 Hungarian as foreign language teachers a year at Károly University alone (there were other places too, where this was taught, although it has been out of the higher education register for some time), but so far most of them have had few jobs. Now they are eager to get involved in teaching refugee children.

According to Judit Gál, the main thing is to develop a completely individual, personalized work schedule for each child. And this cannot be done without a special helper. It requires an open mind, but many teachers in her school are very keen to work with children with a foreign mother tongue. When they have a certain level of language proficiency, they receive subject-specific tutoring.

“It’s all a very nice, exciting, great exercise,” she adds, and then goes on to say that she has had Vietnamese students who learned Hungarian in six months.

Which school to choose?

As Telex reports, parents applying for asylum status will be given a humanitarian residence permit and their accommodation will be designated by the asylum authority (they will receive a document from the authority stating where they live – this is important because asylum seekers are not entitled to an address card). This will decide in which school or nursery they can enroll their child.

The question in this case, is whether all kindergartens and schools will have the capacity to take on new children. If, for example, a large hotel or a shelter for refugee families becomes home to a large number of children at the same time, this may raise the question of how the school concerned will accommodate all those children.

What about integration?

Idlikó Schmidt believes that:

It wouldn’t be good if we put three Ukrainian teachers in some building off the map and let them teach. We should not put these children in separate schools! This would lead to isolation in the short term and segregation in the longer term. It is very important for social integration that refugee children do not grow up in segregation.

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Ukrainian online education

There are also refugee students who are still receiving online education from their own schools. For them, their teachers provide distance learning in the same way as they used to during the pandemic. But they obviously need a laptop and an internet connection for this. However, they are not looking for a Hungarian school for the time being.

Children under the age of 16 who stay in Hungary for a longer period of time are subject to compulsory schooling in the same way as their Hungarian peers. The question here is whether the system will accept Ukrainian online education for them or not.

Should Ukrainian children even go straight to school?

Several experts have raised the dilemma of whether it is worthwhile to enroll refugee children in classes in the spring, or whether it would be better to give them a break this academic year and provide them with playful and targeted intensive language learning sessions now, and possibly summer camps later, as a form of pre-integration.

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There have already been refugee children in public education in Hungary

As Ildikó Schmidt mentioned, there have been refugee children in public education in Hungary, but according to HVG, the system has almost ignored this. They write that there are 34 schools in the whole country that have Hungarian as a foreign language in their pedagogical program.

There has been no support or regulation for non-Hungarian children in Hungary for quite some time,”

says Kata Bognár, the professional head of the Menedék Association.

Basically, there is equality of rights, as children with asylum status can go to school in the same way as others, but this does not mean equal opportunities at all,”

she says.

There are typically no teachers specializing in Hungarian as a foreign language who could help with the conscious and structured learning of Hungarian, no intercultural mediators integrated into the system who are well versed in both languages and cultures and could help the children with translation and explanations of the subject as pedagogical assistants.

What help do teachers need?

According to Bognár, the state could help effectively if it provided extra resources for schools that accept refugees so that they could employ teaching assistants and Hungarian as foreign language teachers, even in the form of traveling teachers.

It would also be good, she says, if school authorities would send a unified, methodological, professional recommendation to the schools concerned, in which they could collect good practices and useful intervention methods.

The legislation seems to have solved the problem, but the fine-tuning may not make everything go smoothly. Our experience so far has been that in many cases schools have tried to avoid the obligation, but now the situation may be different, as we are talking about European children,”

says Bognár, pointing out that there is no difference between refugee and asylum-seeking children on paper, only in reality.

Featured image via Zsolt Czeglédi/MTI


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