French teachers open up about integrating Ukrainian students into the school system

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year, thousands of Ukrainian refugees have enrolled in the French school system. As they adapt to their new daily routine, their teachers look back at how the integration process went.

A picture taken in a school in Epinay-sur-Seine, north of Paris, on March 15, 2022 shows alphabet letters on a board in a classroom.
A picture taken in a school in Epinay-sur-Seine, north of Paris, on March 15, 2022 shows alphabet letters on a board in a classroom. © Thomas Samson, AFP

On her first day of school, Yulia cried rivers. It was March 28, 2022, a little over a month since her home country Ukraine was invaded by Russia. Squeezing her mother’s hand tightly, it took Yulia’s teacher Marie-Laure* several attempts to peel her away and bring her through the doors of her new primary school thousands of kilometres from home, in an eastern Parisian suburb.

Slightly reassured that her mother would come see her at lunchtime, the 9-year-old hesitantly took a seat and put down her school bag. Marie-Laure introduced her to her classmates and Yulia seemed to relax, but only for a short while. The reality that this was her new life, that these were her new peers and that she wouldn’t be spending 24/7 with her mum quickly began to sink in. Yulia welled up, again. 

“She would scream, cry and beg me to call her mum,” says Marie-Laure, who has been working as a specialised teacher in Seine-Saint-Denis for five years. Although it was a difficult time, she understood Yulia’s anxiety. “You suddenly find yourself in a setting where nobody speaks your language or understands you. That’s bound to bring on a lot of fear and frustration. Add to that being uprooted from your country, which is at war… Well, it mustn't be easy.” 

*Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality

Back to school

Since the war in Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, France has enrolled 17,677 Ukrainian students like Yulia in its primary, secondary and high schools. Most of them have joined classrooms in the Ile-de-France region, which is home to three local education authorities: Paris, Versailles and Créteil. 

Ukrainian refugee pupils have been placed in schools with special UPE2A units, programmes designed to accommodate foreign children who don’t speak French. Led by teachers like Marie-Laure, these classes help newcomers ease into the French school system gradually, giving them time to familiarise themselves with the language and their classmates. 

Over the course of a year, UPE2A students take 21 hours of traditional classes like French, maths, history, English and geography. After the first month, they are allowed to join their francophone peers in sessions that don’t require a school bag (“classes sans cartable”), like physical education, music, or arts and crafts. If by the end of the first year they have reached a high enough level to enter the French school system, they are integrated into a francophone classroom. If not, they can continue the UPE2A programme for one more year. In other words, non-French speakers have two years to catch up.

>> Paris schools prepare to take in refugee children from Ukraine

“It’s essential that the student is integrated into the French school system after those two years,” says Nicolas Monteil, a UPE2A teacher at the Blanc-Mesnil secondary school, northeast of Paris. “Especially when secondary school ends, because that’s when students make their [high school] course choices,” he says. 

In France, students can choose to attend three types of high schools: lycée général (academic training), lycée technique (arts, applied sciences or technical training) or lycée professionnel (vocational training). 

A bumpy start

“UPE2A teachers only meet their new students once all the procedures have been completed,” says Fatima Messaoudi, a school mediator who works at the academic centre (CASNAV) in Paris where newly arrived “allophone” students take their entrance exams.

Ukrainian families, like any other refugee family in France, have many hoops to jump through before they can enrol their children in the school system. “They are obliged to meet with a social worker, find housing, translate documents, find a job and then sign their children up for their placement tests,” says Messaoudi. “It can be a lengthy process.” 

Luckily for Yulia and her family, things moved quite rapidly, and she was enrolled in Marie-Laure’s class only one month after setting foot in Paris. The 9-year-old’s father had already been living in France for 10 years so could help with translations and navigating the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. Still, integrating into a new primary school was difficult for Yulia. 

“I spent hours making sure both Yulia and her family felt at ease, but the panic attacks and crying fits didn’t stop,” says Marie-Laure. With the consent of her parents, Marie-Laure eventually escalated the child’s distress to the school director, who agreed that psychological support was the best course of action for little Yulia.

In April 2022, “the director contacted a special number set up by the French government for Ukrainians, but it was too early,” says Marie-Laure. “The phone number didn’t work, it was an empty shell.” 

A few kilometres west in a suburb northeast of Paris, Nicolas Monteil tells of his experience welcoming three Ukrainian boys into his classroom. He has been working as a UPE2A specialised French teacher in Blanc-Mesnil for six years. 

“Ivan, Volodymyr and Arthur all arrived at different times,” he says. The two older boys Volodymyr, 12, and Arthur, 13, joined his class in February and September 2022. Ivan, the youngest who is 11, only started two weeks ago despite having arrived in France last year. 

Monteil acknowledges that it takes time to get settled, but says the administrative system is also to blame. “Some students arrive in France and wait six months to be enrolled in a school,” he says. “That’s because there aren’t enough UPE2A units for the amount of requests that come in, especially in Seine-Saint-Denis. It’s one of the poorest departments in France, with a high population of non-French speakers, so we’re under a lot of pressure.” 

As a result, Monteil never has a full classroom at the start of the school year in September, and his students all have different levels in French. While Volodymyr is getting along well, he has difficulties with pronunciation. Arthur, on the other hand, is “very comfortable” in the classroom and “stops making an effort when he thinks he has understood something”, his teacher says. And as for Ivan the newcomer, he has trouble writing. 

The boys' fathers, unlike Yulia’s, all stayed behind to fight the war in Ukraine. With no one to help translate, Monteil had to improvise strategies to introduce his students and their families to the school. “There’s always another student or a family friend that can help out,” he says, “But you can also count on the pupils themselves. They’re very intelligent, they’ll find ways to understand, and be understood.” 

The French government doesn’t provide schools with allocated translators, so teachers are often left to their own devices when welcoming non-francophone students in their classrooms. 

Challenges, victories and differential treatment

“After about two weeks, Yulia began to feel at ease,” Marie-Laure says, letting out a sigh of relief. Along with the homeroom teacher who would eventually become Yulia’s main point of reference, Marie-Laure worked hard to ensure she was surrounded by as many familiar faces as possible. “We worked as a team and made sure she was getting the attention she needed”. 

Just two months after her arrival, Yulia took part in a theatrical production the students put on for their families at the end of the school year in June. “She was playing the clown, expressing herself fully, laughing… It was beautiful to see,” says Marie-Laure, beaming with pride. Being trilingual in Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian before arriving in Paris helped little Yulia pick up the French language quite quickly. 

It’s been less than a year since she started school and Yulia is almost fully integrated. Now Marie-Laure only teaches her for one and a half hours a day, a massive improvement from last year. “She’s excelled so quickly, her level is even higher than some of her peers who have been with me for a long time,” says her teacher. “Being trilingual helps, I guess!” 

Volodymr, Ivan and Arthur have all made improvements since they arrived too, Nicolas Monteil smiles. “There are Moldovan students who speak Russian and one Russian student. The boys also speak Russian, which allows them all to communicate,” he says, “I was slightly concerned about the Russian student coming in, but they all became friends right away. That’s what’s great about kids. The context of war doesn’t stop them from building relationships.” 

Monteil has organised an end-of-year project focussed on cinema, where he asks his students to make short films that mimic a specific style in film history. “As soon as we started working with the cameras, recording interviews, Volodymyr lit up,” he says, citing this moment as a victory. “It’s always a joy to see a student open up. It’s these small things that make all the difference as a teacher.” 

Although Monteil and Marie-Laure have had different experiences in welcoming their Ukrainian students, they both share a frustration at the differential treatment these students received after fleeing their home countries. When the war broke out, the French government published an online pamphlet for teachers, created a special school reception plan for Ukrainian refugees and opened up an academic hotline (that is now fully functioning). 

“I never had any support for the reception of my other students,” says Marie-Laure. “It’s great for Ukrainians. I’m really glad that all of that help was available, but some kids have parents who were almost killed, who come from countries like Afghanistan or Bangladesh where there are serious conflicts. There’s a sense of injustice, and that reaches beyond the school system,” she says. 

“It was the first time we were prepared to receive new pupils,” says Monteil. “We received documents explaining Ukrainian culture, characteristics of the language, all kinds of things. That doesn’t necessarily happen with other nationalities.” 

“It’s abhorrent,” says Marie-Laure. But for her, the priority will always be her students. Seeing Yulia excited to attend school without any tears in her eyes is a victory in itself. 

In France, all children between 3 and 16 are guaranteed an education by law, regardless of their status or nationality. 

According to UNICEF, as of July 31, 2022, there were an estimated 650,000 Ukrainian children living as refugees in 12 host countries still not enrolled in the local school system. 

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