“Turn over your question papers and begin. You have 90 minutes.”
It’s exam day, and I’m having that pit of the stomach feeling that I last felt over 30 years ago. But this time the feeling is more awe than dread because I’m standing in a Kabul school hall watching 15 Afghan teenagers commence the first UK school exam (GCSE Maths) ever taken in Afghanistan.
The future opportunity this signals is exciting – school leaders, teachers, students, parents seeking a curriculum, pedagogy and qualification benchmarked against the international standards that the new Afghanistan is determined to adopt.
This ambitious nation craves professional, vocational, English and school examinations. Or, more productively, it craves qualifications (which sounds better – ‘come to the British Council to get examined’ or ‘come to the British Council to get qualified’?)
And there was another reason for that awesome feeling: six of those 15-year old Afghan examinees were girls.
Ten years ago these girls would not have been permitted to sit an exam; they would not have been permitted to so much as walk into a classroom. Indeed, they wouldn’t have been permitted to glance out of their living room windows.
Once the exam was under way I visited some of the school classes, including a room crammed full of girls. (Yes, classes are still gender-segregated, but so be it… one step at a time.)
I hate those stuffy moments when the British Council director tries to slip unobtrusively into a class; everything stops and the patronising question inevitably results. I didn’t quite say ’what do you want to be when you grow up?’ but as good as.
I was bowled over by the response.
My inane prejudice had made me assume that the girls would be shy, gigglingly bemused by this absurd foreign intruder, cowed by their childhood experience, confused about their prospects.
They competed to answer – clear about their ambition to be doctors or lawyers, or to start their own businesses.
And there was a fourth vocational aspiration – to be politicians. I’ve never encountered a school student with this ambition, but here of all places, amongst the barely liberated young women of a clumsily emerging democracy, was vibrant political aspiration.
The people of Afghanistan, and particularly Afghan women, have already been subjected to too many of other people’s tests, trials and exams.
It’s time for them to set their own standards and choose their own qualifications for a life of new hope.