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Learning perseverance: Why 300 students continue attending an overcrowded school in Swat

Lack of space and resources is not going to bring down the students at Sigram Government Primary School.
Published Sep 14, 2016 10:16am

MINGORA: Most students know how easy it is to get distracted in a classroom setting. Students at Sigram Government Primary School too frequently find themselves unable to focus on the teachers’ lectures. The reason here however is not a short attention span; it is that they study in classrooms where as many as two other classes are simultaneously being taught.

A third-grader, Akhtarzada, complains that it is difficult to comprehend what his teacher is saying. “I get distracted by the other classes’ lectures,” he says.

The young student feels that it is unfair how he is sandwiched between the rowdier students from senior classes. In spite of attending school regularly, Akhtarzada feels he is unable to retain what is taught.

Read: '1.8m children still out of school in Balochistan'

A better tomorrow

It is easy to understand Akhtarzada’s frustration. At first glance, the school seems like a busy bazar. Like vendors trying to attract buyers, teachers speak simultaneously trying to hold their students’ attention.

With approximately 300 students, the small school campus barely has any space to walk. Even basic facilities are missing: there are no toilets, furniture for students or fans. In the three small rooms, six grades are being taught. Crammed in the campus veranda are the head teacher’s makeshift office and a workspace for the staff. Yet another class is being conducted at the edge of the open space.

The crowded veranda is at once suffocating. Nonetheless, if it is not a rainy or unusually warm day, the students prefer it to the indoor classes. “It gets very humid and noisy inside, so we enjoy lectures outdoors,” says Fazal Maula, a second grader.

The perceptive student knows that he would be more comfortable at a private school, but his father cannot afford to send him to one.

There are 1,335 government primary schools in the Swat district. Built back in 1978, Sigram Government Primary School is one of the few small schools that are still operational. Similar old schools in the locale have also fallen into disrepair.

Students at the Sigram Government Primary School.
Students at the Sigram Government Primary School.

Yet, to the residents despite its conditions, the school is a blessing in the often socio-politically turbulent area. The Sigram village is located seven kilometres away from the Koza Bandai village. This area was once a hub of militant activity.

It is the students and teachers passion for education that keeps the school running. Hamidullah, a teacher who has also taught at a private school, was very enthusiastic when he was hired. “It was my dream to teach underprivileged students from my area,” he says.

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Like most worthwhile dreams, however, this too came with its share of complications.

“It is not possible to teach properly here,” he laments. The only thing pushing him to go on is his students’ thirst for knowledge.

“If they get proper attention, they can become highly educated and valuable citizens,” he predicts.

Empty promises

It seemed like things may finally be improving in 2015: funds were allotted to the school under the government’s School Improvement Programme. With this money, the management started the construction of an additional room.

A year later, the incomplete room stands as a reminder of the lack of funding and the slow road to progress. The school’s staff tells Dawn that officials of the educational department frequently visit the school, and make promises about addressing the space issues.

These claims are never followed by action.

A student during Urdu class.
A student during Urdu class.

The school has demanded more classrooms and other educational facilities. But these requests seem to be falling on deaf ears. The discouraged educationists question the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)-led provincial government’s claims of streamlining the education sector.

Read: Pakistan’s education spending lowest in South Asia

The students’ parents are ready to fight for their children’s education. They have formed a group called the District Parent Itihad (DPI). Hussain Ahmed, a member of DPI says that that they have approached the higher authorities and elected representatives, urging them look into the matter.

DPI vows not to quiet down. The parents are confident their children have a bright future ahead of them. After all, a school full of impassioned students and teachers is likely a good omen.

All photos are by the author.

Fazal Khaliq is a journalist with a focus on culture, tourism and archaeology.