Paid to fill teacher’s shoes

School teachers in remote areas are increasingly hiring unqualified proxies because their journey to work is too long and costly. Some parents accept that this is a reality of where they live, others are angry at the practice. Education authorities say they are trying to tackle the problem.

Pupils walk several kilometres to attend school in Watapur District. (Photo: Sharifi)

In a mosque in the ragged mountains of Kunar’s Watapur District, children aged between seven and 14 sit attentively on the carpet for class. The boys sit in the front row, while the girls, a third of the class, sit behind them, their heads covered in black, green or red headscarves. Many of them travelled for hours to be here. The only problem is the teacher didn’t.

In remote parts of the country like Watapur, located near the northeastern border with Pakistan, appointed state teachers are increasingly hiring untrained school children to teach on their behalf. Many of the adult teachers are allocated from towns and simply avoid the exertion and cost of daily travel in unfamiliar terrain by informally ‘sub-contracting’ pupils aged 12-15 to do their job.

“I would commute over 200 kilometres to my school in Kundeal from my home in Asadabad and it would cost me 4-6 dollars a day,” one former teacher called Satal, who has since joined the military, told Afghanistan Today from his barracks. “So I decided to hire a teacher to teach on my behalf while I worked on my farm. A few months ago I enlisted in the army and abandoned my teaching job,” said the soldier.

His is not an isolated example, and sheds light on a much wider issue of unqualified tutition. According to the Ministry of Education (MoE), there are 193,000 teachers in Afghanistan but only 41 percent of them are professionally trained. The rest are either high school graduates or current students. Teachers are paid less than 160 dollars a month, a meagre salary, but one that many still find preferable to split with a proxy.

Better than nothing?

In another school in Watapur, eight teachers teach 300 students. One eight-year-old boy with a UNICEF backpack and plastic shoes, Khurollah, walks several kilometres through scorching heat to reach his school. The first grader still doesn’t appreciate the shortcomings of having untrained teachers, but older pupils like Shakeel, a sixth grader at the same school, have cottoned on. 

"Elderly people teach us sometimes. Often if they do not know something, they just turn the page and move on.”

“Our official teachers don’t show up,” Shakeel said while sitting outside his makeshift school on a break. “Sixth and eighth graders and elderly people in the village come and teach us sometimes. Often if they do not know something, they just turn the page and move on.” 

Shakeel’s father is not surprised at the absence of official teachers. “They simply cannot afford to travel long distances on their salary,” he said, apparently accepting of the situation. Some residents are grateful that there are any schools at all. The Taliban forbade secular schooling and many parents see it as a positive that impromptu classes started to appear again on farms, in mosques and in living rooms. 

But others are incensed that their children’s wellbeing is being tampered with through the hiring of proxies. “I took my two kids out of school,” said Abdul Wasit, another parent in Watapur. “Not studying is better than studying in this school." 

State educators keep planning

Girls must sit behind the boys in class. But compared to some parts of the country, they are lucky they can attend school. (Photo: Sharifi)

While irregularities plague implementation of education policy in the furthest reaches of the country, the Ministry of Education, with funding from USAID, has ambitious plans to expand its educational reach. In three years, the ministry aims to increase the number of students enrolled in school from 9.4 million to 12 million, build another 2,500 schools and reopen 400 of 550 that are currently closed. It will train 60,000 more teachers, but only 300 of these will be women. No significant wage hikes are planned, though, meaning that the ad hoc teaching is likely to continue. 

Zurwali, a teacher from Zaria now living in the Kunar Province capital Asadabad, was appointed to a school in the mountains after enrolling in teacher training college. He says the pressures of teaching and his studies have forced him to delegate his pedagogical duties.

“Every day I go to the academy for my studies and once a week I teach. I have hired another person to teach on my behalf: I pay him half of my salary,” Zurwali said. 

Secular education threatened by setbacks

A further one million children were also enrolled in schools this year, bringing the total to 9.4 million, according to Amanullah Iman, an MoE spokesman. But girls are still disadvantaged: In 159 of the country’s 400 districts, they rarely receive education beyond the age of 12 due to traditional beliefs governing family behaviour.

While the government recently re-opened two girl’s schools in Helmand and Khost provinces, insurgent groups continue to impede the development of female education. Some schools are verbally intimidated into closing,others have been burned down and teachers have been killed. Pupils have also been harmed in numerous incidents. In Ghazni Province alone, at least 60 students have been poisoned and hospitalized this year, with suspicion falling on militant factions opposed to an education system that includes girls and a secular syllabus. 

Children leave a tent school after classes in Baylough in Zabul Province in 2007. The school was closed down after insurgents killed a local police officer who doubled as a teacher. (Photo: Nick Allen)

But the government retains its secular course in education, as shown by its decision to distribute the 46 million schoolbooks it recently printed with the support of USAID. Meanwile, UNICEF identified 13 areas where the education indicator is weak and has invested 55 million dollars in assisting government projects over the next three years. 

But with so many gaps in the system, some members of the public remain unconvinced by those responsible for education. “The Directorate of Education people are unprofessional,” said Ibrahim, an education consultant in Kunar. “These people know nothing about management.”  

Regarding the unofficial splitting of salaries by teachers, officials in the province say they are taking action. The problem is "80 per cent resolved," they say, and seven new teacher-training colleges have been opened to redress the situation.

“After repeated complaints, we have decided that teachers in mountainous areas must at least have a high school diploma,” said Katib Shah, a spokesman for the MoE in Kunar.

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