Tough school? War, illiteracy and hope in Afghanistan

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Afghan school
Image caption,
Afghanistan's education system has had to endure decades of conflict

The idea of drafting a nation's brightest new graduates to become teachers in the most deprived areas has been used in both the United States and the UK, where the approach was pioneered by Teach for America and Teach First respectively.

But how would this model fare in a country where the education system had been pulverised by four decades of constant war and conflict - Afghanistan?

The answer to this question is unfolding in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, where 80 graduates from Afghan universities are teaching 23,000 girls and boys in 21 schools under the Teach for Afghanistan scheme launched at the beginning of this academic year.

The scheme is the realisation of the dream of its founder and chief executive, Rahmatullah Arman, who at 26 has taken on a challenge which might deter the most courageous social reformer.

Mr Arman returned to Afghanistan in 2011 after studying at the University of Pune in India, where he also volunteered for the Teach for India scheme.

No desks, but lots of students

Impressed by the transformation he had witnessed in Indian schools, he decided to attempt something similar back home. But first he had to educate himself about what remained of the Afghan education system and the country's social fabric.

He was both shocked and inspired. After 14 years of US-backed reconstruction, Afghanistan was still a country where 3.6 million children were not in school, where half of the teachers were unqualified, where 75% of pupils dropped out by the age of 15, and where the adult illiteracy rate hovered around 60%.

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Rahmatullah Arman is getting talented young graduates to teach in Afghanistan's schools

"For me, the biggest inspiration was when I went into schools where there were no chairs, no desks, often not even teachers, but the schools were still crowded with pupils," said Mr Arman, speaking in Kabul.

"I saw families taking their children to school, even where a blast could happen at any time, with all the security problems of which we are all aware, and yet still there are nine million children at school.

"I saw the hope that the people have, the spirit of not giving up. They have lost their futures, but their children might have a future."

He was convinced that he could give these children "Not only an education but a very good education, not by others but by Afghans themselves."

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So in 2013 he started to create what would become Teach for Afghanistan with help from the global educational partnership organisation, Teach for All (which was created jointly by Teach for America and Teach First in 2007).

Mr Arman set high criteria for his recruitment drive. To join, applicants needed "not just a degree but at least 75% marks" as well as leadership experience and communication skills.

"Something really wonderful happened," Mr Arman said. "For 80 positions we received 3,000 applications, all meeting the criteria, and 99% were from Afghan universities."

Educating girls

It was important that many of these "fellows" were female, to show by example that a girl could become fully educated, get a good job, and still get married and have children.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
More than 150 died in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul last month

In traditional Afghan communities, to be able to read and write was regarded as enough education for a girl. Teach for Afghanistan has a different view.

"It is about changing mindsets, and that is a very long-term process", Mr Arman said.

In one example, a female teacher, Manzoora, heard that the parents of two girls in her class of 14 to 15 year olds wanted to take them out of school.

She begged the parents to come and see her; the mother came, observed lessons, talked to the teacher, went back home. And after much discussion, they decided to let the girls stay in school.

Image source, Getty Images
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A classroom without walls or desks. Outdoor school near Jalalabad, Nangarhar

Given the continuing violence within Afghanistan, did Arman fear for his own safety? "Actually, no, because the approach we take is very local, we are building good relationships with community leaders and religious leaders as well."

"Since we started, we have not witnessed a single attack on any of our fellows, on any of the schools or pupils."

And if, at first, some incumbent teachers and officials saw Teach for Afghanistan's fellows as competitors, they quickly learned to welcome them as partners, he added.

Tackling extremism

The fellows receive the same salary - about 9,000 Afghanis - as state teachers. It's not a good salary, Mr Arman agreed: "But we convince them they can have a better future, which is much more than just a salary."

Image source, EPA
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Female education has been attacked, with claims schoolgirls were poisoned last month in Ghazni

Throughout their two-year commitment, fellows receive leadership training and support that will open up many different opportunities for them, he added.

Mr Arman is convinced that Afghanistan's future depends on releasing the potential of its youth: "Afghanistan has the youngest population in the world and I believe it could be our greatest asset."

He also believed education was the most effective way of countering the appeal of extremism and terrorism. He quotes Pakistani education activist Malala Yousufzai: "I don't want to kill terrorists, I want to educate the children of terrorists".

"That is the true way to eradicate extremism in my country".

With help from the Malala Fund, Teach for Afghanistan has just recruited a further 30 fellows - 20 female, 10 male - to begin teaching in schools in Parwan province this month.

Ultimately he hopes to be able to supply teachers to all 34 provinces: "The need is to go national, the need is huge, and we will go for it."