A tearful Lyubov Nepop, Ukraine’s ambassador to Hungary, was overwhelmed by the sight of dozens of displaced Ukrainian children now regularly enjoying active learning at REAL School Budapest. This independent English-language school at Graphisoft Park hired Ukrainian teachers shortly after the war broke out and now offers children full-time tuition and a Saturday school, as well as helping parents with Hungarian.
Ukrainian ambassador visits REAL School Budapest to meet displaced children welcomed into the fold
Greeted by smiling faces and vibrant artwork, Ukrainian ambassador Lyubov Nepop was moved to tears on her visit to REAL School Budapest, describing it as her ‘best day since war broke out on 24 February’. Shown round by School Principal Dave Strudwick, Ukrainian teacher Marta Barancsikova and colleagues, as well as school founders, the husband-and-wife team of Barna Baráth and Viktória Szemerédy, the experienced diplomat was most struck by the children’s paintings.
“Such bright colours,” observed Lyubov Nepop, astutely. “That means that the children are feeling happy. It’s just so good to see.”
For REAL School Budapest, too, the event both affirmed their decision to seek out Ukrainian teaching staff – “When war broke out, we immediately thought, ‘How can we help? What can we do?’’’ recalls Barna – and verified their belief in running a school according to ethics the founders, staff and fellow educators believe in.
It was Marta Barancsikova who answered the school’s call for Ukrainian staff. “I thought it was just amazing, so creative, so positive,” she says, nodding to the big blackboard in the main entrance, where the mission ‘Inspire and empower the next generation to dream and build a beautiful world’ is spelled out in teacher’s chalk.
Marta is also involved in Єдність (‘Unity’), a centre offering classes in Ukrainian language and culture since 2020. When she reached out to Lyubov Nepop, explaining that REAL School Budapest was holding an open day for the Saturday school and regular classes now being offered to displaced children, the Ukrainian ambassador’s reaction was immediate. “She said, ‘Just say where and when and I’ll be there’,” says Marta.
The ambassador was also presented with a painting by UK artist Jeff Stratton, an old friend of Principal Dave Strudwick, who had flown over from the UK that week to work on an art project about social justice.
REAL School Budapest currently has ten displaced children enrolled full-time, a Saturday school for 70+ kids and Thursday afternoon activities for 25+ – all free of charge.
Built on the principle of building a better world through education, the school was founded three years ago by Barna, a carbon-zero changemaker and entrepreneur, and his wife, Viktória, a filmmaker, doctor and psychotherapist.
“We had moved our family to the Green School in Bali because we felt that it was more in tune with our values,” says Barna. There, surrounded by bamboo and jungle, the couple also became involved in the school’s management. They then came home to Hungary with one burning question:
“How can we make a change?” says Barna. Eager to put many of the ideas they had found into practice, the couple set about founding their own school with sustainability, creativity and entrepreneurship as the cornerstones.
Another key element is the use of English throughout. Theirs is one of 23 schools around the world with the highest level of certification from the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), a global association stretching across 76 countries.
Location is also important. Set in Graphisoft Park, a complex of start-ups and forward-thinking companies, it is surrounded by greenery, with the Danube alongside. “It’s within easy reach of the city yet close to nature,” says Barna. “If kids love nature, then they will try and protect it.”
Lighting and heating run on green energy, and much of the material used
for furniture is upcycled. Food is strictly vegan, pastries, wraps and main dishes
prepared by acclaimed chef Gergely Zsolnay.
Last year, the school opened the restaurant next door as The Planteen. It runs as a business – the public, most notably workers in the surrounding enterprises, can pop in for breakfast or lunch during the week.
Sustainability is one key factor here – entrepreneurship is another: “We practise real-life learning. Children are encouraged to come up with their own projects, then have six weeks to see them through, what we call the Dream to Reality process”.
The tasks could involve art, nature, film, or all three and more – it’s all about hands-on experience.
It was this ambitious approach that attracted Principal Dave Strudwick to leave behind the UK, where he has co-founded three schools, and bring his family, and his experience, to Budapest. “I’ve never seen so much potential anywhere in Europe,” says Dave, who has also worked in China and the US.
The approach at REAL School Budapest has also encouraged another enthusiast, world-renowned Professor of Neuroscience Beau Lotto, a three-time main-stage TED conference speaker, to take part in a year-long project there on Perception. Coming to Budapest to share his knowledge in his specialist field, Beau aims to help children become scientists and understand more about human behaviour.
“With all the film crews now working in Budapest,” says Barna, “we’ve had industry people relocate their families here so that their kids could come to this school”.
With 25% of pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds on scholarships, diversity also plays a vital role in the operation. “Without any prompting,” recalls Barna, “the children made their own posters, welcoming their new Ukrainian classmates here. Our own pupils have got so much from this unexpected situation. Kids love to help, they love to feel like they’re helping”.
It was Principal Dave Strudwick who perhaps best expressed the nature of the relationship, greeting Ambassador Lyubov Nepop on the occasion of her visit: “Your children are a gift to us. It is we who have to thank you”.
REAL School Budapest
1031 Budapest, Záhony utca 7
For Ukrainian support initiatives and donations, see here