Too Few, Badly Paid And Unmotivated: The teacher crisis and the quality of education in Afghanistan

Photo: Christine Roehrs

The progress in the education sector has been reported widely as one of the success stories of the national international efforts in Afghanistan since 2002. However, this narrative omits severe problems – one is that the teachers who are supposed to facilitate the rapid growth of the sector are still often ill-trained, ill-equipped, badly paid, too few in numbers – and, increasingly unhappy about it. Recently, they stood up for their key demands, paralysing schooling in several provinces with a month of demonstrations. AAN’s Qayoom Suroush and Christine Roehrs have looked at the problems they face and their impact on the quality of schooling in Afghanistan. They found that the demand for education has grown faster than the rate teachers can be hired and that the pressure on the government to pay for more teachers shrinks the budget for many other necessary education expenditures. They also noticed a significant change in the perception of this important profession that once was respected highly in Afghan society.

After one month of fierce strikes, hundreds of teachers in Kabul went back to their classrooms on 30 June. The Ministry of Education had just issued a letter promising them that their demands would be met. Among them were a decrease in teaching hours for older and experienced teachers; an end to the blockade to promotions – meaning regular increases in salaries and social prestige – and improved housing provision for teachers.

With the capital’s largest schools affected by the strikes – among them Habibia High School, that was the centre of the initiative; Ghazi High School; and, Abdul Rahim Shahed High School; – the protests had literally paralysed schooling in the provinces that experienced strikes. At the peak of the strikes, teachers from some 44 schools in Kabul and dozens of schools in 18 other provinces had joined in; tens of thousands of students across the country could not go to school. Teachers gathered in schoolyards to chant slogans and erected tents to shelter in during the day, instead of setting foot into their school buildings. They told the media that President Ashraf Ghani had failed to fulfil his promises to Afghanistan’s teachers. On 15 October 2014, on Afghanistan’s Teachers Day, Ghani had indeed promised teachers that he would solve their problems “within six months.” However, for the following ten months nothing happened. Teachers told AAN: “at some point, we were just fed up with it, so we decided to stand up for our rights in public.”

Millions of dollars in assistance – underpaid teachers

Afghanistan’s teachers had kept quiet for some time. The largest of any previous protest took place in May 2007 when teachers in Kabul voiced the same three demands as now. The Karzai government then also promised to address problems. As a first (and last step), it agreed to raise teachers’ salaries by 1300 Afghani (around 22 dollars) and to distribute 1,240 plots of land for Kabul’s teachers in the city’s northern Deh Sabz area (building a Teachers Town -more on this later). It helped also to establish Teacher Councils (shura-ye muntakhab ma’alemin) across the country in order to have bodies that could “determine teachers’ needs and problems and suggest solutions for them.” During 2013 and 2014, teacher councils were established in 23 provinces at the city, district and provincial levels. Very recently, in June 2015, representatives of these 23 provincial councils gathered in Kabul to elect their first-ever National Teacher Council Board. Fazl Ahmad Fazl from Kabul became chairman.

However, over the past few years, the councils seldom were listened to. Some of the teachers taking part in the protests told AAN that, before going on strike, they had discussed their problems with education officials, with members of parliament (MPs) and with the agency providing the hiring framework for civil servants, such as teachers: the Independent Administrative Reform and Civic Service Commission. But, as Fazl told AAN: these officials either “ignored us or simply told us that they could not help.”

The June 2015 protests were more than demonstrations for more money or a better status for teachers, though. They challenged the general view of the basic and secondary education in Afghanistan being one of the greatest success stories of the past 12 years of national and international development efforts. The enrolment of students indeed has skyrocketed since 2002 when fewer than one million Afghan children went to school. In 2014, more than nine million students were enrolled in public schools; at least 5.5 million boys and 3.5 million girls (with many chronically absent, though). However, the teachers, who are supposed to be the backbone of progress, still are often ill-trained, ill-equipped and badly paid, even though, over the past decade, international donors have given billions of dollars to improve basic and secondary education in Afghanistan. USAID, as biggest donor, alone has spent 769 million US dollars from 2001 till March 2015, with additional millions going into teachers’ salaries.

The three demands – 1) working fewer hours

The first demand of the protesting teachers – fewer working hours for older and experienced staff – sounds odd at first. With teachers in western countries typically teaching around 40 or more hours per week, Afghan teachers seem rather underworked with official teaching requirements of three to a maximum of 24 hours per week (see the Teaching Regulation of the Ministry of Education in Dari here) (1). However, some teachers claim that they teach significantly more hours than officially required. Fazl, the head of the National Teacher Council, puts this at “around 30 hours per week for most teachers.” Muhammadullah Nuri, the head of Faryab’s Teacher Council, told AAN that, in his province, teachers were forced to teach more because the government did not hire enough teachers. “Statistically”, he told AAN, “there should be one and a half teachers per class, but the government does not hire even one teacher per class. Consequently, we must teach more hours.” According to a Pajhwok report, teachers in Takhar province said that this year they had to teach 48 hours per week – something they perceive to be wildly out of proportion with the salary they receive. (In some provinces, though, like Kabul, overtime is paid – thus, reducing the official hours would be equivalent to raising salaries.)

At any rate, if taken seriously, the government’s promise to decrease the hours of teaching for older teachers implies the condition to employ more teachers in order to fill the emerging teaching gaps. This, however, is easier said than done. Kabir Haqmal, the Ministry of Education spokesman, told AAN that the ministry did not have the authority to hire more teachers, let alone the budget. It is the Ministry of Finance that decides de facto how many new teachers the budget can afford. Due to the national budget deficit, the ministry usually approves fewer teachers than needed. For example, in 2014, according to Kabir Haqmal, the Ministry of Education’s spokesman, the ministry had applied for around new 27,000 teachers, but the Ministry of Finance only approved 11,000.

According to the Ministry of Education’s website, in 2014 Afghanistan had 201,726 teachers – 137,822 men and 63,904 women (such figures, as always, have to be taken with a pinch of salt with, for example, the 2014 ministry Report on the Achievements of the Past 12 Years stating that Afghanistan currently employed 217,000 teachers. Other, internal, donor reports AAN has seen are doubting the ballpark altogether). The ministry further indicated that only 60 per cent of these teachers could be considered ‘professional’ (meaning only 60 per cent have had at least two years of teacher training). So, how many more professional teachers are needed – and, can they be employed?

How many teachers Afghanistan needs is, in general, a political decision. Governments usually decide upon the student-teacher ratio they want, i.e. setting how many teachers there should be for a given number of children (thus determining how large the classes in front of the teachers are). Currently, as AAN was told, the (non-public) guidelines of the Ministry of Education put the ideal ratio of students per teacher in the primary education system around 35:1 and in the secondary system at 30:1. The reality looks different, though, with the average national student-teacher ratio being at 46:1 (on this list, with slightly different figures from 2012, Afghanistan ranks 16th from the bottom of 190 countries listed.) Parwan province is currently the ‘best’, with one teacher for every 32 students, Daikundi is the worst, with one teacher for every 93 students.

And instead of improving this ratio will worsen (while still not factoring in the more than four million children who do not go to school at all). According to the Ministry of Education’s new Strategic Plan for the upcoming five years, the average ratio will be one teacher for 54 students by 2020. This is mostly because of the rapid growth of the basic education sector in a country with a very young population and where first grades classes tend to be large and are growing. The years from 2010 to 2013 alone saw an expansion of 18 per cent – from 7.3 million to 8.6 million children in the system. The operational budget of the ministry, on the other hand, has been decreasing over a few years now, from a little more than 569 million US dollars in 2013 to a little more than 529 million US dollars this year. An international expert told AAN that this way the system “cannibalised” itself: “The demand for education is growing much faster than the budget, and the pressure is so high to get new teachers that the ministry stops spending money on other things, such as maintenance of school buildings or teaching materials. Salaries today already make up more than 91 per cent of the ministry’s operational budget. This is very unusual, compared to other ministries, and the number is likely to grow further.”

Ministry officials also admit that the quality of education is likely to suffer further in the near future. Surveys have shown that many students in public schools – particularly in rural areas – still cannot read and write properly by grade four (see reports here and here). Taking this thought further, it is likely that girl’s schooling in particular – a heavy focus of the national and international development efforts – will be affected by the growing gap between the demand for and provision of education. More than 70 per cent of girls already stop attending school after grade 6. This relates directly to the lack of female teachers – only a little more than one third of all teachers were women in 2014. A 2013/14 UNESCO report said in this regard:

“In Afghanistan, female teachers are vital for girls to be able to enrol in school, but women face cultural barriers in seeking work in areas where they are not chaperoned by family members. As a result there are twice as many female teachers as male teachers in the capital, Kabul, while in Uruzgan province, most of which is remote and unsafe, there are no female teachers who have the minimum qualification.“

Growing insecurity in rural areas is adding another barrier for women to work here. This means the female-teacher-gap is likely to widen even faster than the male-teacher-gap. The result will be fewer female teachers, which, automatically, will lead to fewer girls in school.

The same report also states, by the way, that Afghanistan in 2015 will miss most of the targets of the worldwide Education for All (EFA) initiative, (for the goals, see footnote (2)).

The three demands – 2) promotions

The teachers also demanded new promotions. This mainly has to do with salary issues. Afghan teachers’ salaries are among the lowest of civil servants in the country, ranging from 6,500 Afghani (around 110 US dollars) to 13,500 Afghani (around 225 US dollars). Fazl Ahmad Fazl, who was one of the main organisers of the strike, told AAN that with current salary levels, many teachers “can survive for only 15 days in a month” and that “many have to take up additional work.” Urban teachers may moonlight as drivers, cleaners or shopkeepers; rural teachers work as farmers after their official hours – and are known to vanish for days on end during harvesting seasons. During this research, AAN, by accident, got into a taxi whose driver, during the daytime, is the head teacher at a school in Kabul. He told AAN that he had to work as a taxi driver until late at night; otherwise he would not be able to pay his rent.

The situation is similar in the rural areas: Safiuddin Sohail, a teacher from Samangan province, who spoke to AAN by phone, said that, although he and his wife both teach, the salaries they receive barely feed their children and not enough remains to rent an own house. He and his family still live in his father’s house, together with his brothers’ families, with one room for all eight members of Sohail’s family.

Teacher promotions had stopped with a law change in 2009. According to the Civil Servant Law there are two types of civil servant contracts: – as a mamour (a permanent employee, detailed in article 6 of the law); or as a karkun-e qarardadi (contracted employee, detailed in article 23 and 26 of the law). Based on paragraph 3 of article 6 of this law, teachers should be hired as permanent employees. This was the case until the Ministry of Education, in 2009, enacted a new regulation saying that all teachers from then on should be evaluated, promoted and paid based on article 23 of the Civil Servant Law; effectively treating them, at least regarding their salaries, as contracted employees. (3)

This form of contract prevents those hired under it from increasing salary levels beyond a certain glass ceiling. As karkun-e qarardadi, teachers’ salaries are now limited to 8,500 to 13,500 Afghani per month. Teachers’ new contractual status also prevents them from changing their bast, their level of employment (there are eight of them, each higher one with better prestige), adding the feeling of not being valued sufficiently and being stuck in their position on the social ladder. During their protests teachers specifically demanded to rescind the salary regulation. Teachers’ salaries, they say, should be paid according to article 6 of the Civil Servant Law, rather than article 23.

This blockade of promotions and the consequential lack of opportunity for teachers to improve their incomes – also an incentive to improve excellence, by the way – did, of course, not do much for their motivation. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, although the Ministry of Education indeed has drafted over the past weeks an amendment to the law, putting teachers’ salaries back under the regulations as per article 6, and sent it to the Ministry of Justice. It still awaits approval by the parliament. However, even if parliament were to vote in favour of the new draft – the government would have a very difficult time trying to make good on the promise, particularly if it also wanted to hire more teachers at the same time. Article 6 states that, after having been evaluated, an employee would get a promotion every year. This means a 250 Afghani increase in each teacher’s monthly salary. With more than 200,000 teachers employed (and more needed), serious budget issues are certain to occur.

The three demands – 3) housing for teachers

Things look similarly bleak in regard to the housing provisions teachers have been demanding from the government. President Karzai’s government decided already in 2008 that in every province teacher towns should be established and teachers, the most needy first, should receive land to build houses (the neediest were defined as teachers who had to pay rent, worked more than 20 years and were close to retirement age). At the time, the Ministry of Urban Development Affairs (MUDA) was put in charge of determining where these teacher towns should be built and in implementing the projects. According to the MUDA website, plans for 79 townships with 76,101 housing units have been drawn up. so far. However, only few plots could be allocated yet, mostly due to conflict over the ownership of the land in question. A teacher talking to AAN added that among those who have actually received land, many had personal supporters in the Ministry of Education. Rawabet (relations) again have dominated zawabet (the law). Nevertheless, President Ghani repeated the housing promise in his Teachers Day speech, saying all teachers would receive a plot of land within six months.

Another problem with the government’s plans for the housing for teachers is the location of the planned townships, particularly for urban teachers. Free vacant plots of land are becoming scarce and expensive in the larger urban centres and, as a result, the government has pushed the townships out of the city centres – sometimes far out. The Kabul Teacher Town, for example, finally has been put in Deh Sabz, an area at the northern fringes of Kabul, about 25 kilometres from the city centre. Commuting from the settlement to schools across town may well take teachers hours each day (should Teacher Town ever be built). In addition, teachers are supposed to construct and pay for their houses themselves – while not being allowed to build as they please. Design and size of the housing units are prescribed by the master plan of the ministry. These seem rather costly. “How are we supposed to afford these fancy houses?” Moheb Elahi, the deputy head of the National Teacher Council, told AAN. “We cannot even afford to build cheap houses.”

“A teacher will live in poverty”

The UNESCO Education For All Monitoring Report for 2013-2014 states: “the quality of an education system is only as good as the quality of its teachers.” The Afghan government itself has acknowledged that teachers pose one of the largest and most important groups of professionals in the country and that their needs have been neglected. Government officials, including two presidents – the previous and the current one – have repeatedly promised to improve their situation but, in reality, have not done much. Instead, with new regulations enacted in 2009, the government has limited the chances for teachers to get promotions (and thus their ability to earn more money and to gain social standing). Also, it has not pursued the housing problem seriously; a burning issue for teachers it had promised to tackle.

The budgetary issues the Afghan government faces have trickled down into the budget of the Ministry of Education. It seems now too late for many of these issues to be tackled. It is very likely that salaries cannot be increased while, at the same time, significantly fewer new teachers than needed will be hired. This means that the already existing gap between the demand for education and the provision of capable teachers to meet this demand will grow further and faster each year that more young Afghans are entering the school system. At the same time, the pressure of the growing wage bill is eating away funds needed for many other necessary expenditures for schools. This way “the future builders of the country”, as President Ghani has termed Afghanistan’s school children, soon will have to learn in even larger classes, in even worse maintained schools, with even fewer teaching materials guided by even less motivated teachers.

All this has helped not only to demotivate existing teachers, but also it has had an impact on the reputation of a once respected – and still urgently needed – profession and the number of young Afghans taking it up. Fewer families than just a few years ago want their children to become teachers. As AAN was told by several teachers it talked to: “school graduates deciding to become a teacher today have to face the fact that they will spend a life in relative poverty with few opportunities to make something out of their lives.” Almost no school graduate taking the university entry or kankur exam names a teacher training centre as first choice. Teacher training centres and universities’ education faculties may still be full, but this is also due to a higher education system that literally forces students with lower kankur exam scores to go there – something that does not bode well for the future quality and drive of teachers either. As one teacher once told BBC Persian: “Teachers are known as the lights of society, but there is no more oil to kindle these lights.”



(1) Professional Subject Teachers with over 20 years of experience and vocational work teachers (kar-e amali maslaki), in addition to helping newly hired teachers, must teach 18 hours per week. General Subjects Teachers must teach between 12 and 18 hours, as defined each year with new curricula established. Teachers who focus on sciences, particularly on lab work courses, must teach six hours per week. Teachers running libraries with at least 250 books are allowed to run the libraries, but should teach 12 hours per week. Newly hired teachers must teach 10 hours, in addition to 14 hours of assisting older teachers. Principles, academic deputies and administrative staff, in addition to their responsibilities, must teach 6 hours per week and the department heads must teach 12 hours per week.

(2) The six goals are:

Goal 1: Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Goal 2:
 Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete, free and compulsory primary education of good quality.

Goal 3: Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programmes.

Goal 4: Achieving a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults.

Goal 5: Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality.

Goal 6: Improving all aspects of the quality of education and ensuring excellence of all, so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.

(3) There is another type of teacher that the Civil Servant Law does not mention: the balmaqta (temporary) teachers. These teachers are hired to fill the teacher gaps in schools. They are hired for nine months through the Ministry of Education with average salaries of 10,000 to 13,500 Afghani. Unlike other teachers, they do not receive salaries during the winter when schools are off and they have to be re-hired for the next year. There are no official statistics that would help to understand how large this unofficial educational work force is. However, some sources in the Ministry of Education told AAN that in each province there are 80 to 100 balmaqta teachers (with exception of Kabul that has up to 180 teachers).

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