"Switzerland always aims to provide real help where it's needed most," Valentina Poltorak, Coordinator of DECIDE project

Valentina Poltorak

We met Ms. Valentina Poltorak at the presentation of the Swiss-Ukrainian project "DECIDE. Recovery," which is focused on rebuilding educational institutions in specific communities and creating new co-working spaces in 25 schools. This project inspired us to conduct an extensive interview because DECIDE encompasses various initiatives in education and territorial community development, its initial focus, and several other areas.

Ukraine is currently facing unprecedented challenges. Swiss partners are highly responsive to these changes, striving to provide tangible, genuine assistance where needed. Therefore, the scope of DECIDE's activities has expanded so much that it cannot be covered in a single, even very extensive material. So, we plan to feature multiple articles. To start, let's dive into this inspiring interview to learn about the global processes happening in Ukraine thanks to Switzerland's robust support and possibly become part of the changes, as the concept of unity and solidarity among Ukrainians runs as a common thread throughout the text.

How did your cooperation with Swiss partners begin?

I have been working with the Swiss since 2009. We started at the National Academy of Public Administration under the President of Ukraine. The idea was to enhance the skills of civil servants, local self-government, and schools, engage young people, and create a conducive environment for sustainable development and democracy.

So, was this idea your brainchild? Did you come up with it?

Our team cannot claim copyright to this idea because it's timeless. Any democratic state in the world wants to involve citizens in community life. We have a large team of like-minded individuals, and we work closely with Swiss experts from the Zurich University of Teacher Education, who originally developed materials on democracy and human rights for educators. We have adapted and implemented them in the education system for many years.

Is your focus on education?

Yes, because educators in any community are the most active part of the population, and the school is the center of everything, especially in small communities, where the school essentially involves everyone because when children are learning, everyone is interested. Moreover, most citizens themselves attended the same school... The idea of mobilizing and building civil society around the school drives us. We looked at all the problems from the bottom: the educational institution and the community. This approach is called 'bottom-up' globally, where you bring ideas from the grassroots to the level of state management and formulate solutions based on what's happening on the ground. It's a very Swiss way of thinking, actually."

"Switzerland is an excellent example of such an approach. Can we take something to implement in our country?

I might disappoint you a bit here, but we immediately understood that we couldn't simply impose this model on Ukrainian realities; it just wouldn't work that way. Switzerland, historically, is a multi-ethnic federal state with a very different system of government. However, the idea of direct democracy, where citizens are maximally involved in decision-making, can be implemented in a certain way.

For instance, regarding community education governance, Switzerland has a highly effective body called the School Board. It's established at the local council level. It essentially makes all decisions regarding educational institutions' material and technical base, hiring their managers, and more. The members are elected citizens who are thought leaders with impeccable reputations and high respect and trust from fellow community members. These individuals are responsible for monitoring how everything is organized in schools, tracking needs, and overseeing how funds are spent. In Switzerland, a significant portion, around 30%, of funding for education (we call it development budget funds) comes directly from the community. Hence, the control over expenses demands a high level of responsibility.

So, we've piloted the creation of School Boards in 12 Ukrainian communities. This advisory body within local councils monitors the implementation of the community's education development strategy for the development of schools, assesses needs, and keeps an eye on how funds are utilized, which typically accounts for about 60% of community budgets. Initially, we faced questions about the need for these School Boards when there are already parent committees. Still, now they are established, and the pilots are working.

Interestingly, Switzerland consistently ranks high in the global education rankings, yet they don't have a Ministry of Education. Most decisions regarding the educational process and school life are made by the schools and the communities, with a smaller portion at the cantonal level. For instance, if a community feels that the level of math instruction is insufficient, they can hire a strong teacher at their own expense. They have complete freedom in this regard, are flexible, and focus on specific educational needs. Even the school's curriculum is developed by the school itself.

So, no standardized programs?

None at all. Of course, teachers have consultants at pedagogical universities. Still, there's so much trust in teachers that they independently shape their subject's curriculum. We also strive for various forms of school autonomy, including academic independence. Ukraine has all the legislative foundations for this, but most schools are not yet exercising this right.

Since we only formed all communities in 2020, we are still at the beginning of our journey. The war doesn't facilitate the development of local self-government, but, as often seen in Ukrainian history, we move forward despite the circumstances. If you travel across Ukraine, you can see how much has already changed. The decentralization reform, which transformed populated areas into territorial communities, not only transferred powers from the state but also allowed for the redistributing of taxes, up to 60% of which were returned to local communities. This enables the maintenance and development of the material base of schools, kindergartens, and extracurricular facilities. Furthermore, communities have started receiving subsidies, submitting projects to the State Fund for Regional Development (DFRR), and seeking other funding sources. And this is leading to quite substantial changes."

"And schools are always a priority?

Communities want their schools to be renovated and modernized so that children can learn in a safe environment. The advantage of decentralization is that its main principle, subsidiarity, means bringing services closer to the consumers. It's essential that the community is now very close to the decision-making authority regarding education.

It's important and natural...

No one in Kyiv is deciding what a school in the Makariv community should look like or what needs to be repaired there. That, you would agree, is absurd. Instead, local self-government bodies, closest to the people and funded by their taxes, make these decisions.

Do you work with a limited number of communities?

We have various initiatives. On a comprehensive level, we work with 20 territorial communities, four in the Luhansk region, which is currently occupied. Our Popasna community has been completely devastated... But all of them remain our partners, and we continue to cooperate. It's a very touching and sensitive topic for us. People from these communities are now scattered across different parts of Ukraine and the world, but what's important is that the school still unites them - many children are studying online in their own schools. We've created online courses and events for them to support and help them continue communicating with each other. Last year, we gathered education officials in Lviv for a strategic session to understand what we would do when their native places were liberated. We all believe that this will definitely happen. Therefore, communities are preparing to rebuild everything from scratch to be together again. And we see that after decentralization, in a short time, everyone felt unity.

At the core of all our initiatives is uniting for development.

When did your DECIDE project start?

In February 2020, practically at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. It turned out to be a crisis response project for education. At that time, while registering and forming a team, we already implemented the first direction - an anti-Covid initiative."

The "SportDream" space - a student project within the Galician Secondary School framework, Ivano-Frankivsk region.

"We started testing right away...

It's clear now that it paid off because everyone had to learn to work online. And now there's no need to travel to communities to deal with paperwork and consultations.

Back then, at the beginning of the pandemic, we tackled operational challenges with the Ministry of Education. Swiss projects are known for being very mobile and responding quickly to the real needs of the country they work in. Projects like ours aim to support the government in implementing reforms and contribute to the development of local self-government. So, in March 2020, we reached out to the Ministry of Education and proposed a partnership, which led to the launch of the "Learning and Teaching during Quarantine" initiative. It involved video communication because everyone needed more communication, and no one knew what to do.

We also created the moncovidinfo website. It was a single page that provided information about all the changes in the educational process caused by the pandemic. It had an absolutely fantastic number of visitors - over a million in just a few weeks.

We also joined the creation of the All-Ukrainian School Online. There were many partners, but we were the first organization to agree to cooperate. And now we're very proud that the All-Ukrainian School Online has received many awards. It's a Ukrainian innovation.

Together with the Ministry of Education and the EdEra educational platform, we created three online courses on how to work in conditions of online learning. At the same time, we were preparing for the second stage of decentralization.

In 2020, after local elections in Ukraine, 1,469 territorial communities were formed, most of which had never been involved in education governance. Our primary task was to help them establish an education department or administration.

Back then, we thought it would take three months for this, but now we continue to provide consultations. Initially, we had 20 experts, and now we have almost 80. Finally, we decided to continue the campaign and provide consultations according to the needs that arise in communities and officials during the development process.

The most intensive work started after the local elections. Before that, we prepared all the advisors and videos because the legislation was changing. We formed a team, and in November, we launched the communication campaign "Education in New Communities from A to Z." It's an educational management initiative for community heads, their deputies, and education department heads. It includes lawyers, financiers, communicators, and academic administrators who, from their own experience, understand labor law and all aspects of local self-government and educational institutions' work. We've already conducted over a hundred webinars, but the most substantial part of our work is advisory. For example, communities send us documents, we analyze them, provide advice on how to bring them into compliance with the law, or help resolve a specific issue."

Is there always a solution?

Suppose we see that the legislation needs to solve a problem. In that case, we propose working with partner ministries - the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Reintegration - to develop changes to the legislation. We also work closely with the Committee on Education and Science and Innovations and the Committee on the Organization of State Power.

Currently, the decentralization reform is ongoing, and at the same time, there's an education reform. So, there are many changes.

At some point, we realized that we were providing advisory services to the entire Ukraine - 1,411 out of 1,439 communities.

Ukrainians organize this activity, but how is Switzerland involved?

Switzerland is our partner. They support reforms comprehensively. They don't just finance the project; they provide advisory assistance and support its implementation. They support specific steps in implementing changes most relevant to the Ukrainian context.

As a result of the decentralization reform, communities received more funds in their local budgets, but with that came a lot of responsibilities, especially in the field of education. During the war, communities became a reliable rear guard - they addressed many issues. Besides providing education, schools also organize resilience points. They are responsible for shelter...and in the first weeks of the war, they received millions of evacuees. Today, we support communities in repairing shelters and provide expertise. But in the early months of the war, we helped evacuee communities restore treasury services and set up evacuation procedures.

We also had humanitarian initiatives - we purchased everything needed for refugee centers in schools in western Ukraine. We also introduced a psychological direction focused on providing psychological support to officials. These are people who make decisions and are responsible for a large number of people and often forget to take care of themselves.

Overall, Swiss partners are very flexible. They respond quickly to new challenges and increase their assistance.

You have a wide range of activities...

Yes, we have many initiatives at both the local and national levels. Advisory initiatives are at the national level. Since 2021, we have been supporting the national reform of school nutrition. The thing is that education departments in communities purchase food and equipment, so they need explanations. But that's not all. Together with partners, we created the "Znayemo" portal. It contains everything for implementing the reform for officials, educators, cooks, school nurses, and parents. Together with all participating organizations, with the maximum involvement of officials at various levels, including community leaders, education departments, and experts, we have developed a strategy for the second stage of this reform. It's a very clear and specific document. In fact, only strategies developed this way work. Clearly, communities are very interested in providing healthy nutrition for children and a comfortable, educational environment, so they are ready to get involved and implement it.

You have a project about children's dreams. Tell us about it.

Every community can use a participatory budget and allocate a portion of the local budget to citizen-led projects. We wanted to inform small communities about this opportunity, using school team projects as examples. For this purpose, we allocated 14 million hryvnias to realize children's dreams. School teams wrote projects aimed at improving something in their community. Teachers and parents joined in as well. Then, there was a hackathon where children shared and discussed their ideas. Next, they submitted project applications to a special platform where adults voted. Some communities held votes in the form of a simulated game. It happened offline and closely resembled an electoral process with ballot boxes, ballots, observers, committees, and polling stations. It turned out great. Children gained practical experience and an understanding that their actions can make a difference. They learned how to go from an idea to a result, saw how a community works, and understood that it's not easy but possible when you strive to implement your idea. It's easy to observe authorities, but everything looks different when you're part of the process. However, the result is worth all the challenges on the way to achieving it.

Truth be told, we didn't manage to implement these projects before the war, but recently, together with communities, we decided that children's dreams should come true. Children were very concerned about this, which also worried communities and us. In reality, such activities distract children from the war and focus them on development and recovery. We are currently continuing the project, including launching this initiative in Chernihiv.

Here, our main idea is also implemented - everyone in the community should unite around the school.

Another favorite direction of mine is the Decide Summer Club - summer activities for children involving integration, psychological rehabilitation, and learning, including democracy, human rights, and the basics of healthy eating. We are at war for Ukraine's freedom and democracy, so we cannot avoid discussing values. But besides that, we pay great attention to safety - communities involve the State Emergency Service in discussions about mine safety and more.

We spent 15 million hryvnias of Swiss aid on equipment for communities. Additionally, we organized training for educators who organized activities. Over 800 teachers and 250 volunteers joined our initiative this year alone, receiving our certificates. We provided communities with everything they needed: camp kits, tents, frameless furniture, popular books that are definitely missing in school libraries, tents, printers, stationery, board games, and more. Everything they need to organize summer activities for children. Then, communities organize everything themselves.

We believe in communities and the fact that we don't need to do everything for them. We want to give them a fishing rod, and they will do everything for their children themselves. They believe in their youth like no one else does. This initiative is currently very popular in Ukraine. We received applications from 430 communities and plan to continue it next year.

We also have a very interesting course called "Learning to Live in a Community," which we created with our long-term partners and like-minded people from the Zurich University of Teacher Education. It's a course for students in the 8th and 9th grades that teaches them how communities are organized and governed. Children learn the basics of project management and, as a result, develop their projects. We encourage communities to allocate funds to implement such children's initiatives. We want to expand it throughout Ukraine, and next year, we will offer training for all regions, not just our partner regions.

Moreover, we develop education development strategies with communities and schools. Again, with community involvement. Everyone should understand what their schools and the education system as a whole will be like in 5-10 years. These are not documents that will sit on a shelf; it's about a working strategy unique to each community. Everyone was involved in its creation, and it was a very challenging process because we needed to reach agreements, find common ground, and build an effective strategy. But when you're part of the decision-making, you take responsibility for their implementation.

A Challenging Transformation...

But it is a transformation, and it is democratic. For example, when we were assisting with developing school strategies, we simultaneously conducted training on building a democratic school with effective democracy. It is challenging, but this is the path to real change.

Switzerland is all about consensus, maximum involvement of everyone, and personal responsibility for each individual. This is part of the Swiss experience that we have brought to our communities.

We first met at the presentation of the DECIDE.Rebuild project. How is it going?

This is our completely new direction. We want Ukraine not just to rebuild what was destroyed, to put up new walls, but to make everything better in a new way. The main idea is "Build Back Better."

We conducted a rigorous selection of communities because we received 108 applications from 86 communities in three regions - Chernihiv, Poltava, and Odesa. In the first stage, we held interviews, analyzed applications, selected 45, and later selected 25 locations in 20 communities.

Our builders and experts visited the communities to inspect the locations. We aim not only to repair shelters but to make them barrier-free, create educational hubs and co-working spaces. We needed expert opinions on how feasible this is in specific institutions. Based on the results of these visits, we made our final selections.

"Comfort Town RELAX" Student project, Vyzirska Secondary School, Odessa region.

I was inspired by your words about children being involved in developing these projects.

Absolutely. Children find it very interesting to develop the concept of their educational space themselves. We will discuss projects in schools and communities. Communities, by the way, are ready to get involved, co-finance, and we propose that they come together and do something together to realize the envisioned projects. Fostering cohesion and participation is a key element of our work.

In our shelters, there will be digital centers so that children can access the internet and, consequently, participate in educational courses and activities. There will be space for communication. And, of course, we will comply with all the State Emergency Service standards; the shelters will be inclusive - everything will be by building regulations.

As part of this project, the restoration of the Borodianka Inclusive Resource Center is planned...

Yes. When the President of Switzerland, Ignazio Cassis, visited Ukraine, he went to Borodianka. Switzerland always seeks to provide real help where needed most, and we decided that this center needed to be restored. DECIDE.Rebuild is a pilot project. We took one school in a destroyed region - School No. 13 in Chernihiv and the Inclusive Resource Center in Borodianka. The need for such centers is tremendous. Unfortunately, the statistics from Borodianka alone show a 30% increase in children with special educational needs, ranging from speech disorders and enuresis to more severe conditions like Autism Spectrum Disorders. And this is the result of the occupation. We need such centers in all the de-occupied territories and beyond. Currently, we are cooperating with a similar center in western Ukraine, where evacuated children are located.

There is a need for many changes in this regard as well. For example, in Ukraine, there is a severe shortage of psychologists, rehabilitation specialists, and other professionals required in inclusive resource centers.

So, they need to be trained?

Yes, training is needed, equipment, restoration, and the creation of new centers. We will not only rebuild the center in Borodianka, but the Swiss Embassy has already purchased equipment, and we have involved our inclusion experts. In reality, the occupiers deliberately and systematically destroyed everything created for children's rehabilitation, even educational materials that are challenging to apply elsewhere but essential in such centers. They intentionally and methodically dismantled everything designed for the rehabilitation of children. However, a powerful and active team is there, doing everything they can to restore operations.

Is the Swiss side directly involved in the projects?

Yes, we closely collaborate on various levels, and they participate in many of our activities. They highly value the work at the local level and often visit the territorial communities where projects are being implemented.

Speaking about the Swiss Embassy, we are always in close contact with them, discussing and making decisions together. Changes in the country can lead to adjustments in the initial plans if they are justified and logical. The Swiss government supports real actions and real assistance to Ukraine, and we sincerely feel that support.

Previously, we saw our role as primarily expert work, strengthening the government, communities, and supporting educators. However, now that the educational infrastructure in many communities is destroyed, and in some places, everything is completely wiped out, we have become heavily involved in a massive reconstruction process. According to the calculations presented at the Lugano Recovery Conference in the summer of 2022, Ukraine needs 750 billion euros for recovery, with 5 billion euros allocated for education. These figures have grown significantly since then. Education is a basic service, and most Ukrainians who have emigrated talk about access to it. Ensuring access to quality and safe education is essential. We are currently at the stage where, despite the ongoing war, we need to rapidly implement reforms to improve the quality and accessibility of education. The number of people with disabilities in Ukraine is increasing, and we need to rebuild and renovate many aspects. Substantial financial aid is entering Ukraine today, and this is our chance to rebuild what was destroyed even better than before for the sake of the future of Ukrainian children.

As for Switzerland, since last summer, they have increased their support for our project fourfold. Our Swiss partners genuinely believe in Ukraine and seek to support it.

Common values?

Yes, our values align perfectly, that's absolutely true.

Interestingly, when we express our admiration for the democracy they have built, they respond that they haven't finished building it yet and are continuing to do so. They emphasize that you can't build it once and for all; it's an ongoing process.

So, in this aspect, we are also closely aligned, as we are building democracy too. However, we are at the beginning of this path, while the Swiss have progressed a bit further. Thank you very much for the conversation. I'm confident it won't be the last, as you have many more initiatives that can be covered in a single material.

Yes, indeed, we have many more initiatives. I'd be happy to continue the conversation.


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