Looking to the West can lead to trouble

27th April 2012 at 01:00
The founders of a school in Afghanistan must walk a political tightrope

Who can count to 10?" the teacher asks in Pashto.

Twenty-five small hands shoot into the air. It is Hanifa who is called on. She rises to her feet and confidently starts to recite in English: "One, two, three ."

She makes it to 10 and gets a round of applause from her classmates. It is a performance that defies expectations of a four-year-old Kandahari girl. So too is the recitation of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star by five-year-old Ikramullah.

These two children are among the first intake of pupils at WESA Academy, the first school in Kandahar - indeed, all of southern Afghanistan - to teach the curriculum in English using a system developed by the Oxford University Press (OUP), Pakistan.

The school was founded by two journalists, Ghousuddin Frotan and Bashir Ahmad Naadim, who despaired of the poor standard of teaching in Afghan state schools, where well-qualified teachers and resources are in severely short supply.

They also recognised huge potential demand among affluent businesspeople or the well educated returning to Kandahar from abroad whose children had previously been educated in English. Schools using the OUP system are popular and highly regarded in Pakistan and India, where many of the returnees have lived.

Until the appearance of WESA, returnees often found themselves having to send their young children back to school in Quetta, across the border in Pakistan, because they are accustomed to children being in school from the age of 4 or 5. In Afghanistan, state schools will only enrol children after they have turned 7.

It is unsurprising that WESA now counts sons and daughters of journalists, businesspeople and government officials among its 75 pupils attending nursery and pre-school classes. The school will add one grade each year as pupils move up and the founders are aiming for 300 pupils on the roll in September.

But this easy confidence belies an extremely difficult predicament. In Kandahar province, where conservative attitudes prevail and female students and teachers are targeted by fundamentalists, the school's founders are keen to distance themselves from what might be thought of as Western influence.

For example, a room in the school has been set aside for a computer lab, but it stands empty even though the local US-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) offered computers to the school. Mr Frotan felt that he had to decline the offer.

"I don't want people to think that the school is funded by the PRT or the Americans because (it is then likely that) anti-government elements will target the school," he said. Instead, he is hoping to get assistance via the Afghan Ministry of Education.

Setting up the school in the first place was a brave move; keeping it open and thriving will require a strategic mindset and guts.

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