top of page

Afghanistan's public schools

In newsletters and other reports, I had claimed that most Kabul school leavers were illiterate. Perhaps they could decipher a few words after twelve years of school, but they could not understand whole texts. The arithmetic skills of the majority of high school graduates did not go beyond the addition and subtraction of single-digit numbers. Such findings were based on the experiences of my colleagues and myself. After all, we have a good 40 employees and around 550 teachers. Conversations with teachers and parents also confirmed the assessments, as did reports from development workers involved in school or vocational training.

Nevertheless, I never felt completely at ease when I made such statements about Afghan schools. I could hardly believe it myself: twelve years of school in which nothing - absolutely nothing - is learned. That was also a question of credibility. People in Europe imagine schools to be schools like the ones they went to themselves. How can people in Europe take it from me that you don't learn anything in twelve years of school in Afghanistan, when I have trouble understanding that myself, even though I live there? German compatriots who perform other duties in Afghanistan, such as development workers from the health sector or agriculture, soldiers or diplomats, were also amazed when I talked about my experiences. Some might have written off my stories as part of OFARIN's self-promotion: "Of course, he has to make the state schools look bad so that OFARIN's schools look all the more splendid."

When the ARTE film was made, it was also about showing and proving the difference between OFARIN's schools and state schools. We spoke to Afghan school practitioners, such as the female head of the lower school of a high school.

All of them reported that they had to adhere to a fixed lesson plan. No consideration should be given to whether the pupils understand what is being taught. Repetition of material that the pupils have obviously not understood is forbidden. In most cases, however, the teacher is not in a position to go through the material that is prescribed for a year. Over the course of a year, schools are closed again and again temporarily – for safety reasons, because of religious or public holidays, because it is too hot or too cold. The material that has not been covered at the end of the school year cannot be made up later.

We looked at school books: In the primer, with which the pupils are supposed to learn to read and write their mother tongue, the letter Alef is introduced first. This is done through texts in which all the other letters are also used, although they are still unknown to the pupils. Alef is only emphasized by the fact that it is printed in red.

The Arabic script and the derived scripts of the Afghan languages Dari and Pashto are written from right to left. In these scripts, there must be a space to the left after certain letters within a word. This must not be the case after all other letters. This important rule is not mentioned in class and is therefore not permitted.

The arithmetic lesson begins with the pupils having to write the numbers from one to ten in letters and then read them, even though they still know almost none of the letters.

What kind of people in charge come up with such rules? How do they imagine that human understanding and learning works?

The female principal of the lower school mentioned that each of her beginner classes is attended by 70 or more pupils. I don't know how much one has to generalize these conditions. But complaints about overcrowding are common. Most school buildings are used in three shifts. Due to the high birth rates, the country cannot keep up with the construction of sufficient school buildings. In addition, all Afghan schools are basically grammar schools with twelve grades. If a new elementary school with six year groups is opened today, in six years it will have become a secondary school. The pupils sit through class after class because they cannot find a job. All that remains for them is the vague hope of a position in the civil service. To enter the civil service, they have to complete nine or, if possible, twelve classes.

One teacher, who was trained during the communist era, claimed that teacher training was better in her time. German development workers who taught at teacher training colleges before the war and civil war also remember that teachers were well prepared in the 1970s. Today, teachers are only trained for one subject, but have to teach many subjects. Even in the past, teacher training could not keep up with the rapid expansion of the school system. Schools recruited most teachers from their own student body. Graduates of the ninth grade taught in the middle school and later also in the upper school. Even today, many teachers are not trained. They are hired on the basis of bribes. They are often illiterate.

Teachers honestly say that they can't teach the pupils anything under the given circumstances. Many often do not hold their lessons. The school administration officials have long since given up supervising the schools. "It's no use after all." Those who become Education Ministers see this as a humiliation. You'd like to be Minister of Defense or Foreign Affairs. But as Education Minister, you are in charge of an authority that everyone knows does nothing. How are you supposed to change that as a minister? Nobody knows what to do. The Minister of Education can only do what all his civil servants and teachers have been doing for a long time: Resign.

The communists relinquished power in 1992. Then a civil war began. Then the Taliban ruled in most parts of the country. There was hardly any schooling by the government worth mentioning during this time. The Taliban were driven out in 2001.

What personnel were available for the reconstruction of the school system in 2002? There were many war commanders. All of them had plenty of retainers who needed to be taken care of. There were administrators who had served under the most questionable regimes. Nobody knew anything about education. Only a few bad schools mattered. It was obvious that Afghanistan "couldn't do school". Afghanistan would have needed many capable experts to set up and manage a functioning school system. Contrary to all Afghan customs, these specialists would have had to work together constructively. Where was Afghanistan supposed to get these experts from?

An official from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) protested against my statement that Afghan schools were very underperforming. The schools have improved a lot in recent years.  In 2001, only one million Afghan children went to school and in 2016 there were nine million. Apart from the fact that this says nothing about the quality of teaching, the numbers of pupils were compared apples and oranges. In 2001, the Taliban did not allow girls to go to school. And of the nine million Afghan children, two million went to school in Iran and Pakistan in 2016 – but there were probably a similar number in 2001. Our gullible administrator was taken in by a shrill statement from the then Minister of Education.

Since 2002, Afghanistan's entire civil service, including the education system, has been financed by the international community. How is it that foreign countries pay for Afghanistan's civil service but do not monitor how the Afghan state carries out its tasks? The international community does not just leave the school system alone with the money it provides. It also finances the entire administration without telling it that it is an agency that has to look after the welfare of its citizens.

This is often explained by saying that school education, for example, is an internal Afghan matter. Interfering there would be a violation of the country's sovereignty. However, Afghan citizens would have no problem with more temporary foreign interference if they received a better administration, a functioning police force, proper hospitals and schools where children could learn something.

It seems to me that this respect for sovereignty is just a pretext to avoid further costly expenditure. Of course, Afghanistan's school system can only be made to function properly with the considerable deployment of foreign personnel.

In this way, the schools remain free from foreign interference. Foreign countries are only involved in peripheral areas. They construct school buildings and offer teacher training courses. As a rule, these are not related to teaching practice and have no influence on it. The actual teaching enjoys the protection of sovereignty. The Ministry of Education understood that no donor wanted to take a close look and that in had to tinker its own teaching system. This led to the unspeakable regulations that control the teaching process and the unusable textbooks reported above – and to the fact that a large proportion of Afghanistan's young people have been languishing uselessly for twelve years.

Kabul in May 2018

Peter Schwittek

bottom of page