Making the Grade

03.08.1410:13 AM ET

Malala’s Schoolteacher on Pakistan’s School Conditions

The former teacher of Malala Yousafzai speaks out on the abysmal school conditions in Pakistan, why teachers need incentives, and owing all girls quality education.

There is a saying in our national language: a teacher is like an architect who builds the soul and character of a child. Yet I believe the vital importance of having more female teachers and teaching more girls is not being given the attention it deserves in Pakistan—and our children  are suffering the consequences.

I am a teacher from the mountainous Swat Valley in northern Pakistan. I taught Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl education activist who was attacked by the Taliban for exercising her right to go to school.

Even without the threat of such attacks, it is very hard to have female teachers in rural and remote areas in Pakistan and provide a quality education. Female teachers are fewer in number and most prefer to work in cities where they feel safer and can live in better conditions. Cultural reasons also prevent many women from working in our culture. 

There are about 2,000 schools in Swat, but few are up to the standard of an equitable education system. In the mountainous areas, where very few schools can be found, they are either ghost schools, where the schools that exist in black and white on paper do not actually exist in reality or are not operational at all, or are schools with no infrastructure, no system and no teaching learning process. The buildings lack proper facilities, the classrooms are not properly equipped with desks and chairs and there are no toilets in some schools. How do we expect our girls to be educated in these conditions?

Let me tell you that it is very hard to teach and keep children’s concentration when they have no chair to sit on, and nothing to lean on to write. And even harder to encourage girls from conservative backgrounds to come and learn in these conditions.

In short, these are schools in name only. They provide abysmal learning conditions. 

Pakistani child reading at Begum Hajra Govt school in slum areas of Karachi on Monday 06 October 2008.
A Pakistani child reads at the Begum Hajra Govt school in Karachi, Pakistan. (Akhthar Soomro/UNESCO)

Some schools also fail to give every child, in particular girls, the care and attention they need and deserve. Class sizes are out of control in some areas, with one teacher for up to 150 students.

I’m raising awareness on the need for better teaching and learning conditions for girls’ education to mark the release of the Gender Summary of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and learning: Achieving quality education for all. This report shows that 250 million children, many of them girls, are not learning how to read and count even though over half of them have spent four years in school. I’m highlighting this cause because I know how hard it can be to teach if you don’t have the right support. I too am frustrated at hearing about so many girls who are not learning in school and want to do something about it. 

The chronic lack of female qualified teachers greatly hinders girls’ chances of learning. In the school where my aunt works, English is taught from grade 5. My aunt asked me to write a few lines on “My Self” and “My Village” so that she could share these texts with her students. Although she is a certified teacher, she can’t write in English. Her students rely totally on memorizing what they are told, rather than actually learning.

We must not only put an end to such practices but also ensure that teachers have the right incentives and are motivated to stay in their jobs. Bangladesh has provided safe housing to encourage women to stay and teach in rural areas for example. In Pakistan, however, there are a lack of incentives for female teachers in particular to transfer to hilly, remote, and underdeveloped areas. This means that many of the most disadvantaged children—and girls in particular—are missing out on their basic right to a good quality education. 

In our culture, women and girls are not given priority when it comes to education. They are not expected to do paid work, so they are left unnoticed and uneducated. This is unacceptable.

The government currently spends just over 2% of the national wealth (GDP) on education. It is reassuring to hear that the authorities intend to double this in the coming years. But more spending is vital, as five million children in Pakistan are out of school, of which more than half are girls and two-thirds of our children are not learning how to read and count. 

The Gender Summary of the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report shows how we can offer all girls a better chance in life: by recruiting more female teachers from a wide range of backgrounds, providing gender sensitive teacher education, and offering them incentives to teach in difficult areas and to remain in the profession. 

Our goal should be nothing less than quality education for all girls, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.

Mariam Khalique is the former schoolteacher of Malala Yousafzai at Khushaal School and College in Swat, Pakistan and is a campaigner for girls’ education.

Read the Gender Summary of the EFA GMR and follow on Twitter: @EFAReport #teachlearn