Or imagine children returning to school after a bitter civil war. They find an education system in tatters, with over half forced to write their lessons on paper held against the walls of school rooms without desks and chairs. This was the position in Nicaragua a few years ago.
These are just two of the experiences shared at an informal gathering of 20 education ministers and policy-makers drawn from around the world at Somerville College, for the Oxford international round table on education policy.
At the week-long meeting, Chabani Manganyi, South Africa's director general of education outlined the government of national unity's educational problems, with 15 million of the population functionally illiterate, 1.8 million school age children not yet enrolled, an intake of 500,000 new pupils a year and class sizes of up to 70.
Former republics of the Soviet Union revealed education systems geared too highly in favour of engineering and science. All need to devote large sums of money to revising textbooks and the curriculum to match the new freedoms.
"We are empty in terms of humanitarian books," said Michael Zgurovsky, minister of education of the Ukraine, who has had to spend spend US$800 million (Pounds 515m) a year on new books.
But the market economy has drawbacks, too.
Professor Vladislavas Domarkas reported the loss of 40 per cent of pre-school education in Lithuania since independence. This, he said, was caused by the transition to the market economy, privatisation and decay of the collective farms which formerly ran their own pre-schools.
In the week that Vietnam re-established full diplomatic relations with the United States of America, Dr Nguyen van Hanh, vice-secretary of the Ministry of Education and Training in Ho Chi Ming City told the Oxford gathering that 86 per cent of professionals in the country were still employed by the state.
But things are changing. Private colleges and universities in Ho Chi Minh City now have as many students as do state institutions and the aim is to increase the numbers.
It is interesting to learn that many different education systems face the same set of problems - a growing demand for quality education in the face of rapidly changing technologies and global markets.
But most would prefer not to be in the shoes of the minister of education in Nicaragua, Humberto Pereira. He reported that some reforms in his country had led students to occupy his office and smash computers.
"We are learning to have disagreements without killing each other, and that takes time," he said.