Czech School Without Borders: how kids in UK keep up Czech language skills
The Czech School Without Borders has been running in London since 2007, allowing children with a Czech parent to enhance their language skills and meet other kids from bilingual families. On a recent visit to the UK, I stopped by the school to meet the teachers and children and see how this unique school operates.
It is around 9am on a bright autumn day and a year 1 class at a school in North London are about to start their first lesson of the day.
But this is no ordinary school in England. For one thing this lesson is taking place on a Saturday. And secondly, the kids are reading out loud what they did at the weekend from their diaries – which they wrote in Czech.
The person behind the Czech School Without Borders is Zuzana Jungmannová, the partner of artist Hynek Martinec, who immortally portrayed her in a hyper-realistic painting that won the BP Young Artist of the Year award in 2007. She is the face in the portrait, but also the brains behind the school.
She says she first got the seeds of the idea for the school after completing her diploma. She studied art with a focus on classical textile weaving and for her final project, she helped people with special needs make a series of tapestries. In doing so, she discovered that she loved working with people even more than with objects. It was her first sign that perhaps she was better suited to working with others rather than sitting alone in a studio.
“We moved to London and I was thinking, ‘maybe it’s time to start something new.’ It was tiny steps – we started with a small group and continued. In 2010, we decided to make an official statute, a charity, cooperating with the Czech side as well, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture. We have lovely relationships here in London as well with the Czech Centre and embassy, and now we are a settled and complete school for bilingual kids.”
The teacher of the year 1 class I was observing, Veronika, says that she was one of the first parents to send her kids to the Czech school when it started out.
“It was just a small group in a living room, a kids’ art club for little children. My daughter was just one and a half years old when she started attending.”
Veronika used to work as a newsreader for Czech Radio back in Prague before her husband, a violin maker, got a job in London and the couple, Veronika pregnant at the time, moved to the UK.
Once the fledgling Czech school came into its own, Veronika, from a family of musicians herself, offered to do singing and dancing lessons with the children.
“I started to get involved and it was absolutely great. I still love it now, even after 13 years. I actually worked for 10 years in the preschool, with the really little ones, really spreading the joy of the Czech language, playing puppet theatre with the kids, singing. And the preschool is good because there are young children with their parents so it’s really like being part of a community. You can feel the spirit of the parents who need a kind of family to substitute for their families back home.”
I manage to catch one of these parents during the kids’ break time. Parents don’t usually attend the classes with the children but her son, Caleb, has broken his leg and is walking on crutches, so she is there to help him. She says she has two kids at the Czech school and the youngest has been coming since he was three. I ask if his Czech is as good as his English.
“Certainly not! But it helps a lot with the grammar, especially with the older kids, when they speak and write. And when they go back to the Czech Republic, it’s enough if they spend a week there – their Czech improves massively.”
Around 200 kids between the ages of 2 to 14 attend the Czech School Without Borders, split between pre-school, year 0, and year 1 through year 9. Zuzana says that the younger year groups are the largest.
“We have quite full classes. The pre-school groups are so big – around 30 kids. Year 0 is a special preparatory class before year 1, and it has around 27, year 1 has around 25. Of course, as it goes up there are less kids, but in year 9 at the moment we have 8 kids.”
Although there is more interest for younger kids, Zuzana says they are very strict about always keeping one teacher and one assistant for each year group rather than melding smaller classes together, to keep the education levels clear and delineated.
One interesting feature of the Czech School Without Borders is that ‘graduates’ of the school – kids who went through the whole system and came out the other side – can then work at the school as classroom assistants or even teachers. This is the case of Matyáš, a year 3 teaching assistant, who began as a pupil at the school and then went on to work there.
“I started out as a volunteer – unpaid labour [laughs]. All I really did was stand around and correct some things that they said wrong or help with homework. Then I became an assistant, and with that came more responsibility, so I started teaching some lessons.”
He says he is somewhat unusual at the school because, unlike most of the children, he was born in the Czech Republic.
“I’m probably an exception – most of the children here are born in England or have one parent that’s British and one parent that’s Czech, but my parents are both Czech. I moved here when I was seven – I didn’t speak a lick of English when I arrived.”
Although for him, Czech was never a problem, for other kids born in the UK and possibly with only one Czech parent who may be very busy, the school is a lifeline.
“I never really had many problems with Czech because my parents were quite on top of it, but a lot of the time the parents don’t have time to teach their kids, so that’s why they bring them here.”
Like all schools, the Czech School Without Borders had to move online during the Covid pandemic, but Zuzana, the founder of the school, says this was surprisingly successful and many parents and children welcomed not having to travel long distances, in some instances from outside of London, to attend. In the end, the move to online teaching was so successful that they decided to keep lessons online every other week in a ‘zig-zag’ system, even after covid restrictions ended.
David, a year 6 teaching assistant and former pupil at the school explains how it works:
“They only have lessons in person every other week, half the time they’re online. We’ve got teachers in the Czech Republic who teach them online and then we teach them in person, so basically we just alternate.”
The school follows the Czech primary school curriculum but adapts it slightly to the specific context, says Zuzana.
“We keep a quite strict curriculum from the Czech side, but of course this is a different education – it’s not the same as in the Czech Republic. Developing an official curriculum for kids who are born and live abroad is quite complicated and strict for them because education here is quite different. For the teachers and all of us it was very challenging, because we tried to put something from the British education system and also something from the Czech education system.”
The curriculum is adapted not only to the fact that the kids don’t live in the Czech Republic, but also due to the time constraints that a school that only takes place one day a week has, as this year 3 teacher explains.
“There is a kind of general curriculum which we follow – we just adjusted it for our needs. That’s a huge help, so we kind of know what to follow. It’s just adapted to what we can really teach in one morning [laughs].”
One of the big aims of the school is to allow Czech to become more than just a heritage language for the pupils, for it to move beyond something they only speak at home and can only use in a limited way to a language they could actually use later in life for work or study. Zuzana explains that for this reason, although the school mostly follows the Czech primary school curriculum, they adapted it a bit to suit their purposes.
“We changed our curriculum a little bit, because in the Czech Republic, year 9 is the year when pupils review all the things they’ve studied since year 1, which is quite boring, because they are 14 years old – come on. So we decided maybe it’s time to change it a little bit, and we developed new books and new educational materials for them to prepare them for the Czech B2 language exam.”
The B2 Czech language certificate counts as official evidence of language knowledge and allows foreigners to study at university in the Czech Republic – which Zuzana says one of her former students has done. Of course, to get there, pupils have to overcome a difficult period in their development, when they often don’t want to keep going to the school.
“Of course it’s very difficult for parents because when they become teenagers, 10, 11, 12, it’s very difficult for parents to get them on their side. But we need to be strong – because if they get over this complicated age, it’s a new life for them. All of my young assistants say it was sometimes very hard, but they are very happy they did it now. Because it’s really huge potential for them, and I think it’s good to stick with it.”
It can be hard for parents to keep the children motivated once they get to this age, which is why the school sees a drop in class sizes as the grades progress – but Zuzana says if the pupil manages to get over this hump, it opens up so many opportunities for them.
And what do the kids themselves make of having to go to school on a Saturday?
“The reason why I like going here is because I go to the trampoline park afterwards, so I always do something after the Czech school.”
“We can do arts and crafts and we can learn about different things.”
And how does it compare to their regular English school?
“It’s different because it’s two hours shorter and also you don’t have to wear a uniform.”
“Well, it’s shorter and also we speak Czech.”
Nothing like the Czech School Without Borders existed in the UK when I was a kid. Back then, growing up with Czech and Slovak parents in 1990s Britain, there were no resources or support for my parents to teach me Czech. I spoke it up until I was three or four, without an accent – I’ve seen the home videos my dad recorded of me as a two or three year old pretending to call my grandma, using one of his ties as a pretend telephone, and blathering away in half-Czech babble, and then a year or two later, actually speaking Czech sentences with perfect grammar that, years later as an adult, I had to painstakingly re-learn. There’s even a video of me singing Baa Baa Black Sheep – in English, but with an unmistakable Czech lilt.
But when I started going to school and didn’t want to speak Czech anymore, my parents were totally unprepared. They had no resources or support, nowhere to turn, nowhere I could go to meet other children living in England with Czech parents. Assuming that I wouldn’t use Czech much in later life anyway, they gave up.
Little did they know that years later, I would move to the Czech Republic as an adult and have to laboriously re-learn all that forgotten grammar and vocabulary. And although no doubt my early exposure to Czech gave me a head start in learning the language over other foreigners, I will never speak it like a native. If something like the Czech School Without Borders had existed back then, it might have been a different story.