There is not an ounce of fat on the wiry frame of Abdul Wahid, and no wonder.
After he finishes his morning work shift, he walks 16 km down mountain trails in northern Afghanistan to the first road, where he catches a bus for the last couple of kilometres to the teacher training institute in Salang. He walks back up the mountain another 16 km to get home, arriving well after dark, just in time to rest up for his day job.
In his determination to formally qualify as a teacher, Mr. Wahid (33) exemplifies many of the gains for Afghan education in recent years. “It’s worth it, because this is my future,” he said.
But he also personifies how far the efforts here have yet to go. Mr. Wahid’s day job is being the principal of the high school in his village, Unamak. Though he only has a high school diploma, he is the best educated teacher that his 800 students have.
It is widely accepted that demand among Afghans for better schooling — and the actual opportunity to attend, particularly for girls — is at its highest point in decades. For Western officials seeking to show a positive legacy from a dozen years of war and heavy investment in Afghanistan, improvements in education have provided welcome news.
But for those who are working to make it happen — local Afghan officials, aid workers, teachers and students — there are concerns that much of the promise of improvement is going unfulfilled, and major problems are going unsolved.
In interviews, they pointed out an abysmal dropout rate, widespread closings of schools in some areas of conflict and a very low level of education for those who do manage to find a seat in a class.
Overcrowding is so bad that nearly all schools operate on split shifts, so students get a half-day, and many of them are on three shifts a day, meaning that those students get only three hours of instruction daily. And many children are not in school. Unicef estimated in 2012 that one in two school-age children did not attend at all.
Further, while there has been positive and rapid growth in the public school system, there have also been daunting challenges, particularly a lack of capacity to find or train qualified teachers, print enough textbooks or build enough safe schools.
According to statistics compiled by Unicef only 24 per cent of Afghanistan’s teachers are qualified under Afghan law, meaning they completed a two-year training course after high school. In many rural places, there are sometimes teachers with 10th-grade educations teaching 11th- and 12th-graders.
Forty-five percent of the country’s 13,000 schools operate without usable buildings, under tents or canvas lean-tos, or even just under the branches of a tree; in a country of harsh extremes of climate in winter and in summer, that means many missed school days.
The Afghan public school system has expanded immensely in recent years, buoyed by extensive international aid — the U.S. Agency for International Development has given $934 million to education programmes over the past 12 years, according to the government agency. Education Minister Farouk Wardak insists that 10.5 million students are enrolled this year, 40 per cent of them girls, a huge increase from an estimate of 900,000 enrolled students, almost none of them girls, under Taliban rule in 2001.
Those numbers are widely quoted by Afghan and Western officials as a marker of success, but the claims are seen as unsupportable by many here.
Jennifer Rowell of CARE International, who has been conducting a study of education in Afghanistan, cautions that enrollment numbers are not actual attendance numbers.
Beyond initial enrolments, attendance tends to drop off quickly, often within just a few weeks. Only about 10 per cent of students make it through to graduation, according to USAID figures.
Those numbers are even lower for girls, most of whom drop out between sixth and ninth grades, after puberty makes them marriageable. Female teachers are acutely scarce, and families worry about the safety of sending their daughters to school given continuing threats from the Taliban and resistance from some local elders.
The schools have an incentive to inflate their figures, because their financing, which comes from Kabul, is based on enrolment.
In the eastern province of Khost, bordering Pakistan, Education Ministry documents from Kabul officially list 252,000 students enrolled last year. But in Khost province’s education department, Kamar Khan Kamran, who works as a recruiter of teachers, said those numbers were wildly inflated.
“I think we would hardly be able to enroll 20,000 to 25,000 students this year in the province, though the demand for education is booming rapidly.”
For all of that, even those who warn that establishing quality education in the country is a mission far from accomplished will acknowledge that improvement has been marked over the past decade.
S. Ken Yamashita, the head of USAID in Afghanistan, noted that even though reliable statistics are hard to come by in Afghanistan, “What’s absolutely clear is the number of kids in school has gone up, the participation of girls has gone up, and it’s such a huge differential.”
He added, “Education is very much a success in Afghanistan.” — New York Times News Service