Most schools in Khost province have no permanent premises, with a shortage of qualified teachers and even textbooks.
By Ahmad Shah - Afghanistan
Belqisa, a grade four student at the Wargha village school, perched on an improvised stool consisting of two bricks stacked together. Around her, in their open-air classroom, fellow students sat either on rocks or on the ground.
Looking around her, Belqisa said, “We don’t have a classroom. We study under the blue sky. When it rains, they send us home, but we burn up in the summer heat and shiver in the cold of winter.”
Pointing at her schoolbag, she added, “We don’t have books. The pupils play in class, and some of them sleep. A teacher comes for us sometimes, but we don’t have any other tutors.”
Students and teachers in the southeastern Afghan province of Khost complain that more than half of the schools there have no proper premises, so that many classes have to be held in the open air.
As well as shortages of textbooks, desks and chairs for pupils, there is also a severe lack of qualified teachers.
Abdul Qudus, the head teacher of a secondary school in the Mehdikhel district, said his 690 pupils and 17 teachers had no permanent premises. A school had been built for them, but it was situated far from the villages it was intended to serve, making it particularly difficult for female pupils to get there.
“We have faced many problems. We provide education in mosques, orchards and gardens in the villages on an ad hoc basis,” he said. “Think it through for yourself. How can we teach 690 students with 17 teachers?”
Some schools lack facilities for teachers and administration.
“Leave aside classrooms, desks and chairs – we don’t even have an office for our staff and to keep our files in,” said Amanullah, the head of another high school in Khost.
Amanullah said the 1,400 pupils at his school were taught by just 43 teachers.
“Out of these 43 teachers, two have bachelor’s degrees, 14 have completed 14th grade, and the rest are all high school graduates,” he continued. “In reality, we need at least 70 teachers, most of whom should be professionals.”
Matiullah Fazli, deputy director of the Khost education department, agreed that the shortage of school buildings and professional teachers was a major challenge. However, he said his office were gradually addressing the various concerns.
“At the moment, 30 per cent of teachers in Khost are professionals,” he said. “We have also solved problems with carpets, desks and chairs of the schools in 70 per cent of cases. However, some problems are beyond our ability to solve. We have contacted the ministry and other donor institutions regarding this.”
Fazli said there were 344 schools in Khost serving some 350,000 students. The figure breaks down as 160 primary, 72 intermediate and 112 high schools. Of the total, 272 schools are for boys and 72 for girls.
However, only 152 of the total number of schools actually have premises.
Mubarez Mohammad Zadran, spokesman for provincial governor Abdul Jabbar Naimi, agreed that education faced many challenges in Khost, but insisted some progress had already been made.
“Many buildings were constructed for schools last year. We are considering building some this year too,” he said. “We are in touch with the directorate of education in Khost, the ministry of education and other organisations. We want the education problem in Khost to be solved as soon as possible.”
School pupils remain sceptical of such promises.
Wahedullah, a grade 11 pupil at a high school in the Spera district, said, “We hear statements like this every year, but the year comes to an end and no schools have been built and no textbooks or teachers are available.
“Studying requires a calm, suitable environment, but pupils sit in the open air here and suffer from either heat or cold,” he continued. “Also, the pupils know more than some of the teachers who teach them. What kind of an educational process is that?”
Helal, a student at another Khost high school, said that the lack of resources led to disruption throughout the day.
“A class studies for two or three hours out of six hours of study time,” he explained. “The classrooms change into sports clubs during the free time. The boys play at wrestling and beat each other up, as the others applaud them. We wouldn’t have conditions like these if we had textbooks and teachers and the schedule was implemented regularly.”
Pupils’ families complain that their children are not given textbooks by the schools, even though they are widely available at local markets. Some accuse education officials of selling books and pocketing the proceeds.
Wali Mohammad Khan, 70, stood in front of a bookstore in Khost city where he had come to buy school texts for his grandchildren.
“I swear to God that I don’t know what is going on,” he said. “They say at the school that there are no books. The teachers put pressure on our children to go and buy books from the market. These books are then available everywhere in the market. That indicates that there is some kind of corruption going on.”
A bookseller in Khost city who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR that some officials had indeed sold him books intended for the classroom.
“I buy books from them for half a dollar, and I then sell them for one or more dollars. It makes for a good profit,” he said, adding with a smile, “The poor students will have to meet their needs from the market as long as the education directorate ‘distributes’ textbooks for them.”
He said that some booksellers sent textbooks to Pakistan to have more copies reproduced because demand was so high.
The director of education in Khost, Bakhtawar Bakhtiyar, rejected allegations of wrongdoing.
“I challenge anyone to find any textbooks sold by education directorate officials in the market. I will instantly take the blame if they do,” he said, adding that no one had a right to print or sell education department books, and perpetrators would be prosecuted.
Sayed Karim Khaksar, the chairman of Khost provincial council, accused officials of inefficiency and negligence.
“Appointments at schools are made through personal contacts, not based on standards, and the problems start from there,” he said, adding that he had raised these issues with high-ranking officials in the past.
Bakhtiyar insisted that these allegations, too, were unfounded.
“All appointments made by the directorate of education are legal. No ethnic, religious, factional or other connections are taken into account,” he said, adding that applicants took a test overseen by education officials and this was used to guide the selection process.
Social affairs expert Asadullah Bashar said that textbooks printed in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan suffered from editorial “interference” which made young Afghans “strangers to their real history and culture”.
However, Bashar believes the fundamental problem is that the huge interest in education since 2001 has swelled pupil numbers to levels which the education ministry and its regional branches simply cannot cope with.
“Quantity-wise, we have a great deal, but we have nothing in terms of quality,” he said. “Low-quality education is like poison."
Ahmad Shah is an IWPR-trained reporter in Khost province.