CBCC member interview - Petra O’Connell, Chair, Czech School without Borders London

On her journey from banking to education, the purpose of the Czech School without Borders, bringing ‘all things Czech’ into the curriculum, aspirations and so much more…

Please give us some background about yourself and what you do.


My professional background is in banking. I started my career financing international trade, first specialising in documentary letters of credit and then moved into originating and trading receivables, sometimes called forfaiting. I simultaneously completed an MBA at Sheffield Hallam University and ended up running a forfaiting team at one of the major banks in Prague. As Chair of the Trustees, my principal responsibility is to ensure our school’s financial stability and to set its strategic direction. On an equal footing, in an organisation working with children, I have to assure their safeguarding. I also have to make sure that our school complies with charity law, company law and any other relevant legislation or regulation. Achieving this comes from the team work of all Trustees who are volunteers and dedicate their free time for the good of our school.

When was the Czech School without Borders established?


Czech School without Borders London started as a small art club for children whose parents wanted to maintain the mother tongue language for their children living in the UK. In 2007 my colleague came up with the idea and together with the help of other like-minded parents they started to meet, firstly in Czech Centre, and then in rented premises in a church. As the number of children grew, there was a need to formalise our efforts within a legal framework to ensure a solid basis for expansion. That was the moment when the Czech School was established with a board of Trustees recruited from parent volunteers and the school became a Company with limited guarantee in 2009. I joined the board in 2011. My first task was to turn our school into a charity which I did in 2012. Since then our team has worked continuously on changing our school into an efficient and professional organisation.


We have grown tremendously over the years and nowadays we have approximately 200 children from pre-school to year 9 (year 10 according to the English school system). From an art club we transformed the Czech School into a formal Saturday School that provides three and a half hours education in Czech language, history and geography and is accredited by the Ministry of Education.


What’s the school’s purpose?


Our mission is to provide a high-quality education for our students as well as to organise special events for our whole community such as the traditional Czech celebration of Mikulas, a summer party, holiday workshops, a holiday camp and many others. We also run a Czech club in Harpenden every Wednesday.


How successful has the school been so far?


We have no official statistics but last year we had our first graduates who successfully completed the whole Czech primary education. They also successfully sat an additional Czech Language Certificate Exam by Charles University. We are immensely proud of them and very happy that most of them are now assisting in our school.


Any plans to expand in the UK or abroad?


Our ambition is not to expand in the UK or abroad but to grow the base of children we teach. We are part of the Czech School without Borders Association; there are nine Czech Schools Without Borders in Europe and many more affiliated schools scattered around the world. The members of the Association are in regular contact, we support each other and meet at our annual conference in Prague every summer.


What is your overarching goal?


Our overarching goal is to build a broad Czech community where we teach our children in an interesting way and inspire them to further develop their sense of belonging to the Czech Republic. We have a huge potential in our young bilingual children who have experienced the best of both of the UK and Czech Republic. Who knows how many of them will go back to the Czech Republic at some point of their lives to study, work or live?

Do you keep in touch with children when they leave?


When children leave during the primary education years, e.g. they move outside London and would like to continue in learning we offer them lessons by Skype and they remain in our community. When our children graduate from school, we encourage them to stay as  volunteers and help to teach or be involved in other ways.


Is competition tough?


I do not feel it as competition, more like cooperation. We have an active relationship with other organisations in the UK which educate young people. We meet on a regular basis to exchange our experience and ideas.


What makes your school unique?


Definitely the community that we have built up together over the years; our children who come to the Saturday school instead of going out or staying in bed after a whole week at school; our parents who volunteer whether it is working in classes, library, reading with our children, organising our events or volunteering as a Trustee; our management team that works tirelessly and of course our dedicated teachers and assistant teachers. Everyone brings to our school their expertise and makes our community richer. Most importantly, we all love and enjoy what we do.


What’s the difference between education and banking?


If you work with children in education, it’s very fulfilling and you really see the results of the good work you do with them. It makes a difference and it is socially meaningful. Surprisingly, management techniques are not so different to those I used when I was banker but I’d say the main difference is the environment. Our goal is to enrich the minds of our children rather than our wallets, the best of all investments.  


What gets you out of bed every day?


School run at 6.15 am.


Please define yourself in three words. 


Friendly, hard-working and professional.

Last word?

The best is to yet come!



Find out more about Czech School without Borders by clicking here.

By Tereza Urbankova, member of the CBCC Executive Committee. 

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