As a young girl her classroom was a mud floor and a blackboard, but Safida Begum considered herself fortunate. In Gulmit, the remote town in Pakistans mountainous Northern Areas where Safida was raised, the education of a female, in a country where even male literacy is less than 20 per cent, is considered unusual even now.
But then Safida is unusual. Married at 13, and a mother before she left school, she battled against severe social and economic pressures to become the first female teacher in her area. Then, with three more children to bring up, she travelled to Lahore to take a BA. Nine years ago, she returned to the northern areas to take up a headteachers post.
Last year, in her mid-thirties, Safida returned to her studies to take part in a programme that has been specifically designed to address the problems of education in developing countries, problems Safida herself has encountered as pupil, teacher and head.
The Institute of Education Development was established in 1993 after research in classrooms in Kenya, Tanzania, India and Pakistan by an education taskforce set up by the Aga Khan Development Network. The institute aims to reverse what the taskforce found was a general decline in the quality of education in the developing world.
An integral part of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, the IED is, according to its director, Dr Kazim Bacchus, neither a school of education nor a teacher training college, both of which he considers to be outmoded concepts.
In 1994, in partnership with Oxford and Toronto Universities, the IED initiated a Master of Education degree a two-year course for teaching teachers that includes a two-month intensive course at either Oxford or Toronto. Last July, Safida joined 35 other teachers from around the developing world as part of the second intake.
The programme has been designed to explore and remedy the problems of Third World education. A key factor in the MEd, Dr Bacchus says, is that the teachers already have extensive experience of the difficulties faced by remote and poorly resourced schools, and so are reflective and continually questioning, pushing forward the development of the curriculum and ideas for new materials themselves.
Discussions usually take place in a kiva, a kind of hollowed-out amphitheatre, with no leaders present or note-taking allowed to encourage everyone to contribute.
Another important initiative is the professional development centre, first pioneered in the United States.
Here, in a kindergarten, primary and secondary school attached to the IED,the MEd teachers can immediately put into practice the ideas discussed in their programme, under the supervision of tutors. It is hoped that eventually a network of professional development centres will be set up, not just in Pakistan (one is planned for the northern areas) but all around the Third World. Classroom-based research is another feature of the MEd, and already an impressive amount of data and ideas has been banked at the IED.
A programme such as this may seem like a drop in the ocean, given the enormity of the task faced. But as a model for tackling the problems of Third World education, and as a means of developing strategies and changing attitudes, the MEd should prove invaluable.
Each graduate returning to their region will, after all, train hundreds of teachers themselves.Safida, who has made enormous sacrifices for her education and for the education of her children, believes the course will be of great benefit to her on her return to the northern areas. It is attitudes and behaviour that must change, she said. It is not the students that are the problem, but the teachers. It is they we must motivate before we can motivate the students.Safida began her education on a mud floor.
Her eldest daughter, 13-year-old Abida, is studying at the Hunza Academy in the Northern Areas, and wants to be a pilot. In one generation the Begum family has taken a giant step. It is this kind of ambition that the IED seeks to encourage throughout the developing world.