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How Polish complementary schools have helped transnational children stay in touch during the pandemic

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 31 March 2021

Sara Young.

Trying to stay in touch with friends and family during the Covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for everyone. Lockdown has been particularly hard for teenagers. But how has it affected those children and young people who are transnationals, and have family and friends in more than one country?

One group of children living in the UK that are widely impacted are Polish teenagers. While they have developed various ways of staying in touch with those back in Poland, this has been affected by the pandemic. However, work done by Polish complementary schools can be seen as helping children to maintain their transnational connections.

Transnational children are those who might have migrated with their parents at a young age, but are separated from their childhood friends; others may have divorced parents living in different countries. Some children may have been born in the UK, while their grandparents or other family members still live in the family’s country of origin. These various relationships make it important for them to maintain strong links with their home country.

For Polish families, a common way of staying in touch pre-pandemic has been through frequent visits; but with the ongoing restrictions on foreign travel, these have been curtailed.

However, there are other methods of maintaining contact. As part of my research into the experiences of Polish-born adolescents living in the UK, I spoke to a group of Polish teenagers, and explored the ways they had found to stay in touch. These included keeping up with favourite TV series, or Polish current affairs online. The teenagers also used social media such as Whats App and Facebook, or Skype to sustain their connection with friends and family back in Poland.

Yet one of the limitations on maintaining connections is that of language. A teenager living in the UK may have undergone language attrition, when a person loses their first language. Polish adolescents who migrated at a young age may not necessarily have had enough time during childhood to acquire a strong grounding in their home language. Even with the aid of technology, the lack of language skills can hinder communication with friends and family back in Poland.

One way in which children can maintain their language skills is through attending complementary schools, also known as Saturday schools. Polish complementary schools will often tutor students for the Polish GSCE and A level exams. Alongside language, they also teach culture and history, and try to foster a sense of connection with the wider Polish community.

During the UK lockdowns of 2020, the majority of complementary schools remained closed. However, a study I conducted with Anne White from the UCL School of Slavonic & Eastern European Studies (SSEES), shows the immense effort made by the schools to maintain an online presence throughout lockdown. Heads of Polish complementary schools described how lessons were being held through various online platforms, from Google Classroom to innovative uses of Whats App, so their students could access Polish language learning easily. Advice was also being given to students who had planned to sit the GCSE Polish exam in the June 2020 session.

Many complementary schools also attempted to enhance a feeling of community through organising online activities at Easter, or for national holidays, with these events often being promoted on the school Facebook pages. This has helped to sustain a wider sense of identity and connection with Poland.

During these challenging times, the Polish complementary schools have therefore highlighted the importance of heritage language teaching, allowing children to communicate with friends and family more easily. They have also demonstrated their connection to the wider Polish community in helping to maintain a sense of community during a time when people have been kept so far apart.

This is a condensed version of a UCL Lunch Hour lecture on maintaining transnational identities before and during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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