Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Private Schools Under Scrutiny

Education ministry closes ten schools and warns many others to raise standards.
By Maiwand Safi, Mina Habib
  • Children at a state school in Kabul. Critics of private education say the state system has better teachers and a more consistent curriculum. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Stacey Haga/ISAF/Flickr)
    Children at a state school in Kabul. Critics of private education say the state system has better teachers and a more consistent curriculum. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Stacey Haga/ISAF/Flickr)

The Afghan government is tightening up on private-sector education in the capital Kabul, accusing some schools of falling far below the required standards of teaching.

Since President Hamed Karzai ordered a probe of private education in April, the education ministry has closed down ten schools and ordered six others not to reopen for the autumn term until they submit the requisite documentation.

According to ministry spokesman Amanullah Iman, five others were fined up to 1,000 US dollars each, 16 received written warnings and 14 were sent letters advising them what improvements they needed to make.

The process is to be extended to other Afghan provinces in the near future, Iman said.

Outlining the major problems the ministry uncovered, Iman said staff at some private schools were untrained, teaching methods were variable, some of them taught via English instead of the official languages Dari and Pashto, and the fees they charged were often exorbitant.

Afghanistan currently has around 450 fee-paying private schools and universities, compared with over 14,000 state schools where there are no fees.

The closures and other measures have angered the Association of Private Schools, and also the national Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which called them an attack on the private sector.

“The government must reconsider its decision,” the chamber’s deputy head Khan Jan Alokozay said, adding, “Of course we are ready to close privately-owned schools immediately if they’re acting against national, traditional and religious values or against the law.”

Iman said it was the ministry’s job to regulate private education and to decide what practices schools needed to adhere to.

“What’s important thing to us is the future of children in this country, not public opinion,” he said. “We won’t allow anyone to play with the future of this country’s children.”

Sultan Mohammad, who owns the Sarwar-e Kayenat school, which was among those shut down, alleged that the authorities had acted unfairly and as a result, cast hundreds of pupils adrift.

“Our documents were in order, and our teaching methodology was in line with standards,” he said. “We were operating in compliance with the guidelines set by the education ministry, yet it arbitrarily closed our school.”

Iman denied accusations of high-handed behaviour, insisting that the ministry did not discriminate between institutions and was seeking only to ensure all children got a good education.

“Our investigatory team performed its duty in a completely upright manner,” he added.

He pointed out that some private schools had come out well from the investigation.

Osman, who has two sons at the Ahmad Shah Abdali, said he was satisfied with the teaching there.

“I’m happy with the education in this school,” he said. “My sons do their homework every day and prepare for the next day’s lessons. If they don’t turn up at school, the school administration will call us. We monitor their work and if we spot a problem, we contact the school administration.”

At some other schools, however, there are concerns that a focus on profits overshadows everything else.

Kabul resident Ataullah expressed disappointment with the private school where he enrolled his son. Despite being in a low-paid job as a driver, he found the fees for what he hoped would be a superior education.

“After a while, I realised my son’s learning was deteriorating day by day,” he said. “I went to the school and saw that in many of the classes, there were no teachers and the boys were just playing. So I took my son out.”

His son Salem, 14, who now goes to a state school, added, “Private schools have nice buildings and look very beautiful from the outside, but there’s nothing inside. ”

He described a pattern of young teachers arriving to teach and then leaving, sometimes after just a few days, and classes being left to their own devices without any supervision.

“Everything was sold at a price there – we even had to pay for drinking water,” he said.

The school’s headmaster said it conformed with all the regulations, and the only time classes were left without teachers was when new staff were being interviewed and tested.

“That takes time, but otherwise, none of our classes has been left without a teacher,” he said, acknowledging that “everybody falls ill or has family commitments, so every teacher sometimes needs to be absent”.

A teacher at one private school in Kabul, who asked to remain anonymous, said complaints from pupils and parents were quite justified. Far from being properly qualified, many of his colleagues were high-school graduates who had failed their university entrance exams.

“I can honestly tell you that we have teachers who can’t even read a text properly, and their writing and punctuation is appalling,” he said. “The school administration always pressures teachers to give the pupils pass marks, because that’s how they make money.”

The use of English as a teaching medium has proved popular with parents who believe it give their children an edge in their future careers, but it has not been approved by the education ministry.

A pupil at one of the Kabul schools fined by the education ministry said classes in English often left him and his classmates confused.

“Apart from two subjects, all classes in our school are taught in English and there are many things we don’t understand properly,” he said.

State-sector educators, meanwhile, insist their schools are better standards than private ones.

“From my perspective, the standard of education in these privately-owned schools is very low, because the teachers are high-school graduates or even pupils from the same school who have recently completed the 12th grade,” Hasina Yusufi, head of the Bibi Mahro school for girls, said.

“Professional teachers with degrees don’t work in the private schools because they don’t have a future there. For instance, teachers in government schools have pensions, opportunities for promotion, protected salaries and so on, which means they have a guaranteed future. They don’t get those things in the private schools.”

Yusufi concluded, “Anyway, these schools aren’t to be trusted. They’re here today, but if they make a loss tomorrow, they will close and the teachers will face an uncertain future.”

Maiwand Safi and Mina Habib are IWPR-trained reporters in Afghanistan.