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Two years on - more girl pupils than ever

Chiade O'Shea reports from Kabul on post-Taliban changes to the schools regime in Afghanistan.

Two years after the Taliban fell from power in Afghanistan, a massive education drive has brought 4 million children into the classroom, more than ever before in the country's history.

The proportion of girls enrolling in school has just passed pre-Taliban levels with 1.2 million now in class, reversing the seven-year ban on female education.

The change is due to a massive effort by the post-Taliban government, in conjunction with Unicef, the United Nations children's fund. It has also required the commitment of individual teachers.

For the women teachers it has been a show of bravery. Some are working outside the home for the first time. Others who have taught before, found that their schools were unrecognisable on their return.

"My first day back was very strange and difficult because I was the first woman to enter the school office," said Saifura Malaksei, principal of Bibi Hawat girls' in Ningraha Province. "I had a burqa on and there were all these men sitting there. I was happy but I was also a bit scared.

"I was not allowed to work as a teacher before. I was frustrated because I had studied for 16 years. I am a university graduate and I was just sitting at home doing nothing."

The Taliban years strengthened her resolve to educate girls so they could lead better lives. When she did return to her school, her excitement was tempered by the long-term challenges which now have to be faced.

Many of Afghanistan's children need catch-up programmes while others need help to overcome trauma. Their teachers also need help. To update their skills Unicef is completing the final stage of a training programme for all primary teachers.

By the end of the winter holidays, more than 60,000 teachers will have been trained in student-centred teaching, lesson planning, child development and non-corporal punishment.

The head of teacher training for the Afghan education ministry, Abdul Saddar Hayat, said: "The teaching problem in Afghanistan is about both quantity and quality. The Taliban times badly disturbed education and now there is not enough professionalism."

For Saifura Malaksei, who completed the training last year, the methods are already paying off: "Previously, the students didn't participate much in the learning activities. They were very passive, they just had to listen to the teacher and they didn't like it. But now, there is illustration, role- play, story-making and group work, so the students enjoy the work more."

Another problem was the variation in standards of pupils whose lives had been disrupted: children who should have been in grade eight had to go into grade three or four, she said. This demands great flexibility on the part of the teachers who have to respond sensitively to the emotional needs of these children.

In 2002, TES readers raised more than pound;215,000 to help Afghan children returning to the classroom after the Taliban fell from power.

More than 500 schools across Britain staged sponsored events in support of The TES Children Helping Children appeal, run jointly with Unicef. Ranging from conventional sponsored walks, runs and swims to more unusual events, such as cross-dressing days, individual schools contributed between pound;1 and pound;12,500.

The money raised by the appeal was enough to buy notebooks for more than three million Afghan pupils, or to supply almost six million pupils with pens. Alternatively, it would provide stationery kits and attendance registers for 12,000 teachers, or buy chalkboards for almost 45,000 classrooms.

* A group of 2,000 former underage soldiers in Afghanistan's fighting forces will benefit from a Unicef-supported reintegration and rehabilitation programme starting this month in the north-eastern province of Badahkshan. It will be followed by similar schemes in Kunduz, Taloqan, Baghlan and the Central Highlands region.

By the end of the year, 5,000 boy soldiers are expected to benefit from the programme, established in consultation with the Afghan New Beginnings Programme, which is leading the disarmament of former combatants across Afghanistan.

Unicef estimates that there are around 8,000 former child soldiers in the country, many of whom have already left the fighting forces informally over the past year. All are in urgent need of help to integrate back to civilian life, especially in education and work.

Most have missed many years of education, and all participants in the programme will receive basic literacy and numeracy tuition.

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