STORY 10 - 22 FEBRUARY 2014 - SHAM BABA SCHOOL: TEACHING UNDER THE OPEN SKY

Thousands of government schools across the country operate without adequate infrastructure or basic facilities and thousands more have been built but lie vacant. The Government Maktab Primary School in Sham Baba, Swat, is different: it has no building and no facilities but a dedicated teacher and more than 100 students.

The Sham Baba school was set up in 1996 as a maktab school within the premises of a mosque. “It started taking in students and enrolment grew quickly,” says Jawad Iqbal, Alif Ailaan’s education activist in Swat. “Within a year, people from the mosque started to complain about the school, claiming that it was ‘making a mess’ in the mosque,” he recalls. “Eventually the school was asked to shift out of the mosque.” The school administration approached local officials to build a school for the children. “They were told it would be very hard to get funding without the right connections.”

Typically this would have been the end of the story for the children of this small settlement in Swat. But one dedicated teacher, Nisar Ali, was determined not to let their education suffer. “I went to the children’s houses and spoke to their parents,” says Ali, a government school teacher who runs the Sham Baba school. “I told them that the school has been set up by the river, and they should send their children. Most of them said, ‘How can we send our children to school out in the open?’ I told them that if I can sit outside and teach, there is no reason why the children cannot sit outside and learn.” Soon most of the children returned and since then enrolment has increased.

Today there are 103 children at the school, studying from the primary level all the way to Class 4. Although enrolment is higher than at any time since the school started functioning, only a few of the students are girls. “Parents are concerned about safety,” explains Iqbal. “They are reluctant to send their daughters to a school without a building.” When it rains—and Swat receives a significant amount of rainfall—classes are cancelled.

There are many reasons why parents fail to send their children to school. Security, especially for girls, is a major issue. “There are many parents who are waiting to send their daughters to our school,” says Ali, “and the only thing that prevents them is the fact that there is no building.”

“We talked to parents and local teachers, and we held a rally to demand a school,” says Iqbal. With support from the community, they were able to persuade a provincial minister to approve the construction of a school in the settlement. “After that we went to the District Coordination Officer. He told us to find someone who was willing to give us the land and the government would provide funds for construction.” A landowner in the area donated land but funds for construction have not yet been released.

Ali, who has a Master’s Degree from Peshawar University, believes that most parents do want their children to be educated. “Many don’t send their children to school because of poverty.” Iqbal agrees, adding that many of the students at Sham Baba school are undernourished and their families can barely afford the tattered clothes on their backs. “But still they are getting an education.” Ali has not given up hope that one day Sham Baba’s children will have a proper school. “The government must take an interest, and then something will happen. A proper school can bring so much progress to our town, which has never seen prosperity.”

Meanwhile, the school’s 103 pupils continue their studies—when the weather permits. “I see many kids from the Sham Baba school and they are actually ahead of children in other schools that have proper facilities,” Iqbal says. “These students are well behaved, well mannered and take an interest.”

What makes one man stand up and do whatever is needed to make sure that the children in his community have access to education? “I get a pay cheque and I am an educated person,” says Ali. “It is my responsibility to give other people an education.” Whether or not there is a building, Ali will continue to teach under the open sky. “God will help us educate more people and bring progress to our town.”