Inclusive and equitable quality education in Afghanistan by 2030: Realistic or delusional

Despite 9.2 million children reportedly going to school and thousands of schools built in the last one and a half decades, the state of education in Afghanistan is worrying. The sector is faced with daunting challenges including insecurity, inadequate buildings, limited or no access to water and sanitation, inadequately qualified teachers, insufficient learning materials especially textbooks, and corruption and mismanagement of resources. While education has been a bright spot of international intervention in Afghanistan, the challenge to ensure quality and integrity of education system is paramount. Therefore, meeting Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” by 2030 seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

The scope of the challenge

A recent UNICEF report indicates that more than 3.7 million children are still out of school. According to Ministry of Education, more than 50% of the schools have no buildings. A recent Integrity Watch survey of schools in ten provinces indicates that even schools that received donor support are in a dismal situation. Of the 276 schools surveyed, 75% of the schools did not have sufficient classrooms, “forcing students to study in short shifts or even in tents or the open air.”

Maintenance has been reported as a major problem in these schools where 57% of the schools reported broken furniture and structural damage such as leaking roofs. While access to water and sanitation indicators have been relatively better in the surveyed schools, there are huge regional and provincial disparities. Teacher qualification indicator is lagging behind despite encouraging progress recently: only 65% of the teachers meet minimum qualification criteria of grade 14 or above. This is further complicated with over 70% of the surveyed schools not having access to adequate textbooks. Last but not least, insecurity has caused thousands of schools to close down leaving hundreds of thousands of children out of school.

One such school with enormous challenges is Omar Farooq High School. We recently visited the school which is situated in the center of Herat city. Despite holding classes in four shifts, several classes are held in open air in this schools. In addition, standard classrooms have been partitioned to create additional classrooms. Teaching materials including textbooks are almost nonexistent. Availability of science teachers has always been a problem. The school principal told us that the school is only a formality since students do not get adequate time to learn during the short classroom hours that sometimes get reduced to as little as 15 minutes. Such challenges directly affect the quality of learning outcomes.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on education in Afghanistan, the impact of the interventions made is still very low due to above-mentioned challenges. A literacy assessment shows that only a small number of students at grade six level have some proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematical literacy putting Afghan students at a much lower level of proficiency compared with grade four students in regional countries.

What went wrong?

There can be many reasons why the state of education in Afghanistan is so dismal despite so much aid going into this sector. Mismanagement and corruption are obvious reasons. Ghost schools, ghost teachers, ghost students and so on are very well known to the Afghan people. In addition, donors’ attitude of pouring money into the sector without ensuring some level of accountability has also been part of the problem. For instance, there is no proper system within the Ministry of Education to track donor support to schools, leaving aid money vulnerable to misuse. In addition, lack of follow up on the investments made by donors and handing over projects to the Ministry of Education without a proper operation and maintenance plan has reduced the lifespan of the school buildings. In addition, lack of community engagement meant that School Management Shuras remain inactive and that communities do not feel the ownership of their own schools. This further created the environment for misuse and corruption.

The way forward

The Government of Afghanistan has proven that it cannot meet the demand by almost 9.2 million students around the country for quality education services. Even if it builds 500 schools every year (although current capacity is around 200 schools per year) it would take one and a half to two decades and billions of dollars to construct buildings for all the schools. In addition, over several years, the government has proven that it is not capable of printing and distributing quality textbooks in a timely manner. We are nearing the end of the first quarter of the school year but textbooks have not been printed by the Ministry of Education so far leaving millions of students without the most basic learning material i.e. textbooks. These are two examples of government failure in the education sector but there are many more examples of the government proving its inability to deliver on various aspect of education.

Therefore, we need to think outside the box of delivering education services through Ministry of Education. There is a need for decentralizing management of education services and initiatives such as public-private partnerships and community-based education to operate schools. The Ministry of Education should only focus on its education policy and regulatory management roles. Without finding alternative solutions, the road to realizing Goal 4 of the SDGs seems a distant reality.