Child rights in the Ukrainian school: harmful practices that undermine the prospects of democracy | Center for Political Analysis «Observatory of Democracy»

Child rights in the Ukrainian school: harmful practices that undermine the prospects of democracy

«Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind» – notes the preamble of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. «As the highest aspiration of the common people» it proclaims «the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want». In its turn, The United Nations General Assembly proclaims «The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a duty to which all peoples and all states must strive for».

Education is called on to promote respect for human rights and freedoms, to ensure their universal and effective recognition and realization. Article 26 (paragraph 2) of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states that «education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms».

Performing that task, the Western states laid down the traditions of educating children based on the respect and observance of human rights, on the values of freedom and equality before the law. They have developed state strategies for civic education. Creation of the EU has adjusted those strategies. Unified approaches were developed for EU members and candidates for membership. Pupils of European schools learn about the human rights and the principles of democracy out of the educational disciplines content. The organization of school self-government provides an opportunity to see how those principles function in real life and to learn how to use them for civilized problem solving.

The Soviet regime and its education system were based on exactly the opposite principles. The ideological vacuum that arose after the collapse of the USSR was not filled with the values of the democratic society. The European component of civic education has remained beyond the declared European integration strategy. Therefore, until nowadays, «European values» are perceived by Ukrainians mostly as an illusion. The president, by calling the citizens «holders of European values», makes a nationwide compliment, or convinces us that everything is all right with our human rights and democracy. Meanwhile the school continues to «punch» «holders of European values» in accordance with Soviet standards.

There is no strategy and concept of upbringing a citizen in Ukraine. In terms of the socialization of society’s member, the school lives in the Soviet «coordinate system». The content of academic disciplines has nothing to do with the implementation of the tasks of educating a «critically thinking, conscious and active citizen». The fulfillment of administration orders is presented as the school self-government. The rights of the child at school are completely ignored. The style of communication between teachers and students resembles a correctional facility rather than an educational institution. Parents treat the teaching of children at school as a natural disaster that simply needs to be undergone. However, all of that is not considered as a problem that needs to have an immediate solving, neither by the authorities nor by the society.

Rights of the child in political programs and state institutions activity

In democratic countries political parties are the main subjects of the state system of governing. In the election programs they propose their strategy for the development of the state and its specific spheres. Those parties, whose programs provided them with the necessary level of electoral support, receive power resources for its implementation. In the parliamentary and parliamentary-presidential republics the formation of the ruling majority involves the development of its common program. The coalition ensures the adoption of the laws necessary for the implementation of the program. For the ministers posts are appointed those candidates who, in the opinion of the coalition, are the most capable of the implementation of its strategic line in a particular sphere. Ministries, using the right of legislative initiative, also affect the process of development and making decisions. Therefore, in the search of a similar strategic line, first of all, we turn to the election programs of the political forces that formed the «basis of the acting coalition», agreed and nominated a candidate for the post of The Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine.

The program of the party Bloc Petro Poroshenko «Solidarity» «Live in a new way!» contains a number of slogans about the need to change for ourselves and to change the way of interaction with the authorities on the basis of creating effective mechanisms of public, legal and political control over their actions. However, there is nothing about the fact that the idea of «living in a new way» requires the education of society on the basis of value system inherent to the state governed by law. There is no mention of education and the need for changes in the education system.

The «People’s Front» party program «Restoration of Ukraine» focuses on the creation of «European Ukraine». The strategic goal is to secure the rights and freedoms of citizens and to implement comprehensive reforms. One of the main goals is the entry within a period of 20 years to the list of the first twenty countries according to the Human Development Index. Obviously, their implementation should provide an educational component as a key one. In the section «Political Development» has been declared the aspiration to build a modern, legal, democratic and efficient state, the main focus of which will be on the development of every citizen. However, «approaching to European standards», which should be the result of the reforms identified in the section, is not associated with the education of that citizen who should become «the main focus» and whose activities will contribute to the purge of power, the strengthening of the fight against corruption and so on. The section «Social protection and humanitarian development» contains the thesis about the necessity of purposeful work of the state on patriotic education of citizens and the policy of forming a common national identity. It is noted that the party supports the continuation of reforms in the educational sphere on European basis. The latter is not specified. The references to education and upbringing are fragmentary, unrelated to the implementation of program tasks.

The analysis of the contents of the ruling coalition parties’ programs points to two things: the founders of those political projects are not the holders of democratic myth and the leaders of democratic ideas, respectively, and the parties are not ideological; they are not oriented to systemic educational reforms, one of the priority directions of which will be the education of a democratic state citizen. The problem of reforming the education and ensuring its key role in the process of society’s democratization is not even in the perspective of consideration of those political actors.

Liliia Hrynevych, obtaining the status of a candidate for the post of the Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, announced the following list of the priority tasks: the correct completion of the academic year; provision of acquiring certificates; conducting a tender for school books; revision of the Law «On Education» and the legal framework necessary for the implementation of the Law «On Higher Education». The concept of «strategy» in her speech she applied only to «building a new model of multi-channel funding of vocational schools»

In her claims in the status of the Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine there are some mentions about the relevant problems of the school. During a working meeting with Volyn’s teachers on the 26th of July, 2016 she pointed to the need to reorient school education to acquirement of the knowledge and skills that a modern person demands for life. She also noticed that in order to make children successful, and not to stimulate the growth of their complexes, it is necessary to change the programs and methodical recommendations for teachers. Indeed, programs need to be changed. The thing is – it is not enough. It is necessary to specify the direction of changes. One of the key should be the one that is defined by the democratic world and European community – legal and civic education and upbringing.

During the World Education Forum held in London on the 23-25th of January, 2017, the acting Minister stated that it was necessary to reload the teacher training system in order to grow a new Ukrainian teacher who values every student. The problem posed by the Minister is, indeed, extremely topical. However, the vision of a «reloading», taking into account the current reality, requires significant specification. Thus, while communicating with the pupils of Kharkiv schools, it is usual to hear about the negative attitude to the school and the reluctance to attend it. The attitude of teachers is the main reason that pupils underline.

In order to cross-check this unpleasant idea, we visited the randomly selected sites of 36 schools in different districts of the Kharkiv city and researched the responses. Over 70% relate to the violations of the child’s rights, the high-voice style communication of teachers, humiliation of pupils etc. So, obviously, the «reloading» should include the education of the teachers themselves as a law-conscious citizens, who perform the most important social mission to educate future citizens and possess the highest degree of social responsibility.

For the autumn of this year, the Ministry of Education announced its presentation of the teachers’ code of ethics. Indeed, from the point of view of the corporate culture it is appropriate, but it is probably not enough to address the problem of violations of pupils’ rights. Without real mechanisms for protecting pupils’ rights and legal sanctions for violating them, it is hardly possible to achieve a real positive outcome.

«Ukrainians do not know their rights, which is the subject of manipulation among officials», – said the acting Minister of Justice Pavel Petrenko in an interview to Censor.NET on the 16th of June, 2017. In TV interviews members of the parliamentary committee on justice also constantly affirm the low level of citizens’ legal awareness. Leaders of human rights NGOs say that it would be much easier for them to help people to defend their rights if citizens knew about those rights and were more active in their protection. But, at the same time, no one raises the question of who and where they should be taught.

What do parents ask about?

In May-June 2017 Ukrainian mass media published an interview (in two parts) with the acting Minister of Education. The basis for the conversation composed the questions posed in Facebook by parents of schoolchildren. Let us see how much the parents are concerned about the problems and issues that we raised. In the first part of the interview the questions about the possibility of teacher dismissal, certification and exams for teachers are considered. Citizens are interested in problems with classbooks, funding and raising funds from parents. Parents do not mention violations of pupils’ rights. The second part of the interview covers the issue of what the Ministry is doing to prevent violence in schools, whether there are any government programs. The Minister replied that in other states this problem was solved by introducing special anti-bullying programs – programs against violence. She also noted that the idea that every person has a sense of dignity and that his or her rights should be protected extends and strengthens among children and teachers. However, the position of the ministry, maintained by specific bills on how and when in the future such ideas will be strengthened at the Ukrainian school, is not yet cleared. And the experience of Lithuania, mentioned by Liliia Hrynevych, is interesting not only for such programs. The school there is a key institution through which the strategy of legal and civic education is implemented. A significant number of school activities are initiated and funded by a corresponding ministry.

What is written in the school books?

The need for the modernization of the educational content in Ukraine is considered by the current Minister of education to be a priority task. Indeed, in the segment of legal and civic education, the system has become completely outdated long time ago. So, modernization should relate to the list and content of the disciplines, as was previously described. The Minister mentions the appropriate texts for reading as well. So let us take a look at the texts of the school books in terms of the impact on the education of civic qualities and legal culture. For example, the school book «The Basics of Health» contains the story «Admonition for Children» (p. 117). There is a quote from it: «The true freedom of a son and daughter is to be an obedient child. Docility to parents’ will is the first school of civic education. If you do not learn to obey the will of your parents, you will not be able to become a stable, courageous citizen». Therefore, the authors of the school book, which included the stories of the Soviet teacher Vasyl Sukhomlynsky (1918-1970), still promote in the children’s minds the idea that the main virtue of stable and courageous citizens is the willingness to conform. They emphasize that this is the exact freedom. For the Soviet school that brought up the subject, this content was fully consistent with the goal. But for a school that seeks to educate a conscious, active and critically minded citizen, obviously, such texts are directly contraindicated. The analysis of a number of other educational stories shows that the authors of the school books do not associate freedom at all with the possibility and the right to choose.

In the story «Respect for Teachers» (p. 118) it is said: «It is impossible to enter into a dispute with honorable and adult people; not worthy of human wisdom and prudence to hurry to express doubts about the truth of what the elders advise; if you have any doubts on the tip of your tongue, hold them in your head, think about it, contemplate, and then ask the elder again – ask in inoffensive way». Everything seems to be fine. Respect for the elders and teachers is a holy. Only if you add those phrases that pupils hear several times a day: «Teacher is your king and God», «Teacher knows better, he cannot be denied», «You must love and respect teachers» …, then it turns out that the pupil should keep his or her doubts in mind and generally keep silent about them. And it is even better to eradicate them at all. And what about the right to freedom of thought and expression?

In other school books we find a series of stories about how to avoid conflicts. Indeed, in the Soviet social sciences, the no-conflict statement was the key. However, in today’s world, the only country where conflicts are perceived not as a standard of living, but as an exception – is Japan. The basis of the mentality of the Japanese is the principle of harmony that derives from the national religion – Shintoism. Due to this principle the Japanese were brought up for millennia. But nowadays realities even pushed them to study conflicts and find ways to solve them. In western schools, children are taught not to avoid conflicts, but to tolerate conflict situations and resolve conflicts in civilized legal ways. The school books for the Ukrainian school still write about the anomalies of the conflict, and the pupils during the educational hours are told how to avoid conflicts and adjust, especially when it comes to all the requirements of teachers.

Rights and written norms that are systematically violated at school

A lesson at school is sacred. There is a schedule approved by the stamp and signature of the principal. This is a formal document, one of the main ones. So the lessons should be held. Everyone is studying the material according to the curriculum. Teachers regularly report on their implementation. If a pupil has truanted a lesson, appropriate sanctions are applied to him because this is a violation. On the other hand, it was a common occurrence to conduct rehearsals during lessons, especially if deputies or other government officials are expected to attend events. After all, they need to demonstrate all the talents of students. Furthermore, «cultural events» for pupils are organized regularly 1-2 times a month: watching movies, illusionist performances etc. Of course, during the lessons. It costs 25-30 UAH to visit the event. But what is the difference between pupil’s truant and the «mass absenteeism» organized by the administration? Only in the number of interested people. That’s what the school teaches in practice to adhere to the rule of law. And in the minds of schoolchildren systematically raise the awareness that any norms can be violated if it is beneficial to holders of power statuses, the majority or all.

A common thing is the solution of class life «acute problems» during the lessons: conversations with offenders and truants; reproval of those who did not come in school uniform; distribution of school books. The clear illustration is one of the episodes that the daily lives of Kharkiv pupils are rich of. During the lesson the teacher divides the school books between the pupils. One of the pupils, a girl, is eating something, because the lesson is still not being held. The teacher, seeing it, screams and asks her to leave the room, and at the next lesson the teacher reprehends her in front of the class as a malicious violator. Instead of analyzing the situation, it is better to give another example for comparison. The acquaintance described the «strange» situation witnessed in Paris. There was an improperly parked car on the street. The police car came and stopped nearby. While the policeman was inserting a receipt for a fine for improper parking, the truck loaded a police car and carried it away. It was also parked incorrectly. These situations clearly show the principles of a barbaric society living and the civilized one. Accordingly, the same principles are reproduced in the minds of children through school education and upbringing.

In Ukraine the State sanitary rules and standards of placement, the maintenance of educational institutions and the organization of the educational process are approved. They strictly regulate the natural and artificial lighting, organization and requirements for healthy work of students, air-thermal regime and the mode of ventilation of rooms in particular. They also determine the requirements for through-air ventilation. However, in Kharkiv schools there is an order from the «top» (authority) about a saving regime in educational institutions (which, by the way, is not supported by any formal document) and now the representative of the administration or the principal personally bypasses the classes and turns off the light.

Children complain about the pain in their eyes, because the natural light is not always enough. But saving and abidance of the order is above all. For reasons of heat preservation, the need to ventilate the classrooms disappears. Because in winter it is evidently cold. Some parents are afraid that children will freeze. In the periods of increasing the number of viral diseases, the first recommendations of physicians relate to the ventilation regime. But no one cares. For administration and teachers there are more weighty arguments. The direct consequence of «healthy conditions» is an obvious tendency to deterioration of the schoolchildren’s health. About 50% and sometimes more freshman students cannot attend classes in physical education in the main group.

Each school has stands that remind students of children’s rights. Do they remind administrators and teachers that they also have to ensure that these rights are respected? Article 6 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right to healthy development, Article 12 – the right to freely express one’s opinion, and Article 13 – the right to own opinions and information. Failure to comply with sanitary norms violates the right to healthy development. The right of the child to his or her views and opinions is violated daily and repeatedly. The style of communication between the majority of teachers and their children often indicates that the pupil is not at all associated with a holder of human dignity. Some sayings and comments on the pupils’ point of view raise the question: which is the epoch – savage or barbarism – do Ukrainian school live in?


Ukraine is trying to escape from the corpse of the Soviet Union that is being decomposed. In that way Russian historian Yevgeny Panasenkov explains the essence of the Ukrainian Maidans. Russia is trying to prevent this. This is, in his opinion, the reason for Russian aggression. But this is just «the tip of the iceberg». Its underwater, and as is known, the greater part, lies in the fact that we have not changed for too long. The Ukrainian school is still in the Soviet «coordinate system» and is making too much effort so that new generations do not change either. This is particularly evident in the southern and eastern regions. The reproduction of the «Soviet man» mentality has become one of the factors that ensured the perception of the «Russian world» and its projects in Ukraine. The lack of an effective system of legal and civic education, the practice of total violation of the rights of the child at school makes the prospects for the establishment of democracy in the near future ghostly and doubtful.

Until today, the teacher training system was not deconstructed, it is fair for case of the school as well. Educators who themselves are brought up in the spirit of an authoritarian style of management and communication, in an atmosphere of disability, ensure reproduction within the next generations of all the lines of «HOMO SOVIETICUS». From the age of six, the child falls into an environment in which the rights, written on stands and repeatedly mentioned in lessons, are repeatedly violated. There are 11 years in this environment, in fact, until the formal reception of civil rights. The culture of submission, legal nihilism, double psychology and thinking according to double standards, passivity and orientation to the implementation of orders – these are the real results of school socialization that are seen in yesterday’s graduates. Therefore, they are not ready for the practical realization of civil rights.

If such a legal model of the school was introduced by another state, we would have called it hostile. If it was a colony school run from the metropolis – they would talk about the deliberate destruction of the nation’s legal consciousness. For a state declaring a strategy for democratization, such a school resembes a visual illustration of a goal that has no ways and means of implementation. The content of school education and daily school life is turned 180 degrees away of the goal of educating a conscious citizen, and hence of the democratization of society. Preserving this state of affairs gives little reason for optimistic forecasts for the future.

The reasons for the lack of democratic changes in the school lies in several areas:

  • The client-patronage system of power and the low number of real bearers of the ideas and principles of democracy presented in the institutions of state power;
  • Lack of educational elite, able to change the system from the inside and put pressure on power;
  • Passivity of the public sector and parents in issues of authoritarian style of communication and illegal pressure in school; lack of awareness of the connection between the desire to live in a civilized European society and the need to educate themselves and children in accordance with its spirit and principles.

The aphoristic meaning acquired the saying of US President Ronald Reagan that the destruction of freedom is separated by only one generation. Even for societies that have built and defended human rights and democracy, the lack of knowledge or loss of education in at least one generation can become critical. They understand it. Therefore, they introduced a system of legal, political, civic education and upbringing. In Ukraine, no generation has been raised in the spirit of freedom and justice, but today we still do not understand the need to do this. Therefore, society is in a vicious circle of incompetence, legal nihilism, ignorance of democratic mechanisms and inability to use them.


Since the state does not have a policy in the field of education and upbringing, and the government does not demonstrate the desire and ability to create it, society has to force it to do so. Through cooperation with non-oligarchic political parties, non-governmental organizations, creation of initiative groups, systematic work on updating the problem in central and regional mass media, it is necessary to constantly pressure the authorities. It is possible to help the authorities by using the intelligent instruments. By integrating the efforts of intellectuals and active public sector, it should be developed the concept of legal, civic education, and public discussion organized. It is necessary to bring to the authorities’ attention the essence of the concept, the results of the discussion, altogether with the demand for the adoption of the action program and the definition of resources for its implementation.

Regarding the total nature of violations of pupils’ rights and the lack of real mechanisms for their protection, it seems appropriate to require authorities to introduce the office of the child ombudsman and his representative offices in the regions. It is also worthwhile for human rights organizations to be involved in preventive activities aimed at spreading legal knowledge among children and youth, and raising awareness of justice.

An English proverb says: «Do not teach your children, they will still be like you. Nurture yourself». In order for a teacher to be a mentor in the process of civic socialization, he or she must be the bearer of the qualities and principles according to which the pupils will be brought up. There should be a fundamental change in the teacher training system. One of the components is the introduction of the civic and political-legal disciplines, special courses on children’s rights, organization of school self-government into educational programs for pedagogical institutions as a compulsory element.

For teachers who are currently working it is necessary to introduce a mandatory legal courses and a periodic qualification improvement on the theoretical and practical aspects of the transition to a democratic school model. Certification by the incumbent education minister should also reflect the issue of pupils rights and style of teaching communication.

All school life and solving its problems should become public. The facts of violating pupils’ rights, dictatorial communication with children should be widely publicized. The following means are acceptable for this purpose:

  • Creation of special electronic information resources;
  • Creating «pupil hotlines»;
  • Writing feedbacks on school at school and other sites with specific facts of violations and surnames of teachers-offenders.

The effective organizational tools might be:

  • Creation of parental and civic supervisory committees for the observance of pupils’ rights;
  • Development by councils and civic activists within public discussion the system of sanctions for violating pupils’ rights;
  • Periodical discussions by parenting committees and public councils on the state of civic education and observance of pupils’ rights in schools, with further provision of conclusions and recommendations to the administrations of schools and state bodies.
  • Parents who are still predominantly interested in children’s marks and some questions about the costs of funds raised should expand the range of interests: to pay attention to the content of what pupils are taught and how they interact with teachers. Solidary parent «no» is able to significantly reduce the extent of violations of rights and illegal pressure in school.

Published on the website “Hvylya”

Svetlana Topalova, Olena Ukrainets

Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”

The material was prepared within the framework of a project implemented with the financial support of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) and the Government of Canada