Afghanistan: School rises from rubble to teach in tents

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DFID support helps children return to temporary classrooms on a former Taliban bomb-making site

11 January 2010

First the Taliban closed the school, then turned it into bomb factory and finally, a position to fire on British soldiers.

Now, six months after it was destroyed in the fighting to regain the area, the soldiers are putting textbooks back on desks in tented classrooms in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

In June the Taliban were forced out of Spin Majid in Babaji, during Operation Panthers Claw and now children are back at their desks.

Soldiers and British civilians in the Provincial Reconstruction Team first had to win over the hearts and minds of the local community.

They held a shura or village council meeting with the Helmand education director and colleagues and agreed to re-open Wazir Fatir Han school.

One of the key players in setting up the temporary school is Capt. Martha Fairlie, 33, a TA officer from St. Andrews in Scotland and a former BBC Scotland education correspondent.

As head of the military stabilisation support team in Babaji, her job is to try and restore normality to a war-ravaged area.

She said: "The establishment of the temporary school is one of the most powerful signs that people are starting to have confidence in security in the area and are willing to send their children to school every day.

"We are now starting to see the first seeds of stabilisation take hold with visible steps towards a normal life.

"It was an incredibly exciting experience to be at the shura and see the people's confidence rise as they started to identify people who could teach.

"Finally seeing the tents go up, the furniture moved in and then a few days later seeing more than 100 pupils packed into the tents, eager to learn and all so proud to show off their pencils and jotters while doing maths was really satisfying."

A representative from the community told villagers:

"Now is the time to send your children to school. By giving them an education they won't become smugglers, thieves and drink alcohol."

A commander from the Afghan National Army told the shura: "There are big plans for your community, schools and clinics, but we need your help.

"If you don't protect your children, they are not your children. Let's stand together and protect your children against the Taliban."

The shura set up a 12-strong school management council, who agreed a site and recruited three teachers.

The children are taught basic numeracy, literacy and some religious education from the Koran.

The pupils - aged between six and 20 years old - are learning in composite classes but the teachers have asked for more tents so that they can be taught in more appropriate age groups.

A £140,000 permanent, 12-room school should be opened on the site by the summer.

Nearby, in the Deh Adam Khan area of Gereshk, Helmand, 30 leaders from three villages have agreed to re-open their school destroyed by the Taliban in 2006.

Tents are up and a permanent school should re-open in the summer.

What is happening in Helmand is being mirrored across the whole of Afghanistan.

When the Taliban where pushed out of the country in 2001 only one million children, all of them boys, were in schools which largely taught the Koran.

Today 6.6 million children are enrolled in schools, according to national statistics, and a third of them are girls.

Thanks to a network of clinics, clean water and immunisation programmes the children are also in better health.

The British government, through DFID, gives £60 million-a-year to the Afghanistan government to support its national budget. About half goes into education, including helping pay teachers' wages.

To cut out corruption, the money is only handed over once it is clear that the teachers have been paid from central funds.

While we may hear of soldiers losing their lives in battles against the insurgents, many more are using their skills to improve health or laying the building blocks to education.