In a small, sunlit classroom in a public school in western Kabul, a group of 25 fourth-grade girls sitting on wooden chairs recite phrases in Dari from their textbooks. Their voices echo across the corridor as they repeat after their teacher.
“I study with a lot of passion so that I will become a doctor and treat my people,” says 9-year-old Fatima, who wears black school uniform and a white headscarf. “I love studying because it’s how we can guarantee a bright future for ourselves and our country.”
Fatima is one of millions of children who attend primary and secondary school today all across Afghanistan, from the caves of Bamiyan to the deserts of Kandahar.
Education is one of Afghanistan’s biggest success stories of the post-Taliban era. In 2001, less than 900,000 Afghan children were in school, all of them boys. Today that number has increased more than ten-fold, and girls make up almost 38 percent—or 3.5 million—of students. According to the Ministry of Education, 9.5 million Afghan children are attending school this year, an all-time high enrollment figure. This year alone, some 1.1 million new students went to school for the first time.
This remarkable progress is the result of a combination of factors: generous assistance from the international community, prioritized support from the Afghan government and, most importantly, the Afghan people’s own desire to become educated and participate in not just the re-building of their country, but in the building of a better country.
Currently, education is Afghanistan’s third biggest expenditure after security and infrastructure. Building teacher capacity is a top priority. To enhance instructors’ classroom management skills, for example, some 70 percent of teachers have been sent through multiple training courses. Training centers have been established in every province to reach teachers who can’t easily access urban centers.
Another initiative in this sector has been increasing the number of female teachers in schools. With the help of international donors, the Ministry of Education launched a program to send 300 female teachers to provinces where few exist. These new instructors will not only teach classes, but also train new female teachers, with the goal of improving gender balance among instructors.
Afghanistan’s progress on post-secondary education is another success story. Since 2001, not only has the teaching capacity of existing universities significantly expanded, 124 new private universities have been established. These schools offer study options that accommodate both full time students as well as people with full time jobs. Total university enrollment has increased from 7,900 students in 2001 to an all-time high of 300,000 students today.
These national education gains are not just about numbers; the quality of Afghanistan’s schools is also improving. National education experts now conduct regular reviews of the curriculum and make sure textbooks and teaching lessons are up to date. Afghanistan’s public and private universities, for the first time in the history, have sophisticated study programs leading to master’s degrees.
All this progress is moving the needle in a positive direction on what has long been one of Afghanistan’s biggest impediments to development — literacy. Afghanistan still has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, but now the average rate of literacy among men and women is 38 percent, up from 28 percent a decade ago. The country has a five-year plan to continue bringing those rates up, with a goal of 59 percent by 2020. As part of that plan, the government has launched more than 15,000 literacy courses at centers across the country — which taught 411,843 students last year — and broadcasts 28 radio and 22 television educational programs in an attempt to reach people outside the classroom.
Of course, despite these achievements, many challenges remain. Fully half of Afghanistan’s 32 million people are under the age of 15, and as more and more students enter school, there will be an urgent need to systematically address entrenched weaknesses in the education system. More long term planning is needed to raise the standard of teaching and curriculum in primary and secondary schools. Better on-the-job support is needed for teachers, including more training to ensure that instructors possess the necessary qualifications to teach required subjects. Many schools lack complete sets of textbooks, and school administrators often lack the ability to provide strong instructional leadership. And the government needs to do more to ensure people in rural areas aren’t being left out. A 2015 study for the Oslo Summit on Education for Development found that while there have been major improvements in the professional and management capacity of Ministry of Education in Kabul, the benefits are not being felt in the more remote areas of the country.
Solutions to these problems range from improving physical infrastructure and developing more advanced curriculum to providing appropriate teaching and learning materials and improving teacher quality and management in schools, labs, and libraries.
To do all that, verifiable data from the field is needed. Unfortunately, the information vacuum that already existed has been worsened by the security situation in some areas of the country. Violence from terror groups operating in Afghanistan — largely made up of foreign-born fighters funded by foreign interests — continues to hinder the type of data collection that is essential to accurately understand, plan, budget for, and implement quality-improvement measures.
And yet, the significant progress made thus far in Afghanistan’s education sector should not go unnoticed by the international community, including donor governments that are under domestic pressure to reduce their development aid contributions.
The gains in education quality and access are a perfect example of how years of investment in Afghanistan’s development are now starting to pay real dividends. There is unmistakable momentum and a growing sense of confidence among Afghans that things are getting better. The Brussels Conference on Afghanistan this October will give the 20-month-old National Unity Government an opportunity to share the progress it has made in many areas – not least education – with the international partners who have supported the country’s journey toward self-reliance. That journey is well underway, but far from over.
Rohullah Osmani is Visiting Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and former Director General of the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission in Afghanistan. Between 2010 to 2012, he also advised OECD’s International Dialogue for Peace building and State building for Fragile States.