An enormous crack curves down the side of a wall inside School No.52 in Jalal-Abad region, Kyrgyzstan.
“No, this is not from an earthquake. It’s just an old building,” said principal Maksuda Kochorova, shaking her head. “After all, it’s a century old.”
School No.52 is one of the oldest in Kyrgyzstan. It was built as a railway station, then converted into a school in the 1950s. Since then, little has changed here: the building is still heated by stoves; the toilets are outside; and a well provides water. A floor plan of the old railway station still hangs above the entrance. The building itself has fallen into such disrepair that it has officially been declared as “dilapidated”.
Despite this, School No.52 continues to operate.
“Two years ago, the building’s foundations began to crumble,” Kochorova said. “The Ministry of Emergency Situations concluded that the school should be closed. But parents got involved: they came and poured cement to strengthen the foundations. And they kept wondering afterwards why the building didn’t just fall apart.”
According to official data, there are 204 schools in Kyrgyzstan recognised as dilapidated – every tenth school in the country. Just being inside these buildings, let alone studying in them, is life-threatening. Nevertheless, these schools still host children every day.
To get a fuller picture of Kyrgyzstan’s education infrastructure, data journalism students at the American University of Central Asia collected and analysed all the available data on the country’s schools. The results are terrifying.
Of the 2,000 schools in the country, around 200 are in a bad state of disrepair, another 400 are in need of major repairs, and the vast majority of the rest function without running water, central heating or toilets. Calculations by the authors show that at least 70,000 children study in these schools every day.
Most likely, there are even more schools in this state because officials rarely update this information. We combined all the available data into a single database and put each school on the map. Today, this is the most comprehensive information on schools in Kyrgyzstan, but it needs further work. We have made the database available for further research and comment.
How did it happen that thousands of children in Kyrgyzstan are forced to study in such poor conditions? And what needs to happen for this to change?
The most recent official data on school infrastructure are from November 2019, but they vividly show the scale of the problem. We combined this fuller data with more recent information to show this.
Thus, a Kyrgyzstani government resolution from May 2021 recognises the urgency of the issue, acknowledging that the dilapidated buildings “threaten the life and health of students”. The resolution states that 245 schools - a higher number than the 2019 data - have been declared dilapidated, and therefore “should be demolished and rebuilt”. Another 457 schools, the resolution states, “require major repairs to the roof, foundations, walls, water supply systems and sewerage”.
These figures cover a third of all schools in Kyrgyzstan. But in reality, the situation could be much worse. A 2013 nationwide assessment of the safety of schools and preschool educational institutions in Kyrgyzstan revealed that more than 80% of schools in the country are “structurally unsafe”.
A typical dilapidated school in Kyrgyzstan looks like this: there are cracks on the walls from earthquakes or subsidence, water drips from the ceiling, and the floorboards have long rotted all the way through. There are schools like this in every region of the country, and while the average is one in ten schools, there are also regional variations. In the Talas region, almost every fifth school is in disrepair, whereas Osh, in the south, is the leader in the number of dilapidated school buildings: there are 65 of them.
Almost all of Kyrgyzstan’s dilapidated schools – 192 out of 245 – are in rural areas. Most of them were not built according to a standard design. Many rural school buildings, like Maksuda Kocharova’s School No.52 in Jalal-Abad, were originally built for other purposes, whether a collective farm shed, a cooperative office or a state farm administration.
Even more schools from the dilapidated list were built by local residents. This practice, called ashar in the Kyrgyz language, refers to community labour, such as building a home for the poor, or cleaning irrigation canals. This is how residents in rural areas have solved the problem of the lack of schools. According to researchers, the indifference of the Kyrgyzstani government forced people to resort to this extreme measure.
These so-called ashar schools are typically built without blueprints by people who don’t have construction training, and therefore they don’t conform to safety and construction standards. Instead of proper foundations, there may be a layer of stones. Over time, these foundations sag, begin to crumble, and cracks appear on the walls. Several of these ashar schools have collapsed.
“The ashar method was popular in the past, but the consequences are pretty dire,” reported Gulnara Satymkulova, principal of a dilapidated school in the Talas region.
Official government records reveal the dire situation inside these schools. For one ashar school built in 1978, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Education reports that “the foundation is made from rubble and concrete and shows subsidence. The slate roof is leaking. The roof structure is unusable, and there are not enough classrooms.”
In 2017, the Bulan Institute, a non-governmental organisation that works on education projects, proposed that the Kyrgyzstani government ban the construction of schools and other communal buildings using the ashar method.
“Schools should be built on the initiative and under the control of the government,” the authors of the report wrote. “If the government had built standard schools according to blueprints, then these schools would function reliably for a long time.”
But there are many ‘standard’ schools on the Kyrgyzstani government’s list of dilapidated schools, too. The fact is that the government does not have funds for major repairs. In many schools, there have been no major repairs since the day the buildings were put into operation. Despite the fact that the schools were built relatively recently, in the 1960s and 1970s, these buildings have now fallen into complete disrepair. Official documents report schools that have an “outdated structure” or “should not be used out of moral or safety considerations”.
Though natural disasters – earthquakes, landslides and mudslides – tend to finish off schools, the main reason for their decline is everyday wear and tear. Out of 204 schools, 172 can no longer be repaired, and so there is an urgent need to construct new facilities across the country.
The reasons for this are clear: classes at a dilapidated school pose an immediate threat to life. Last year, during a lesson in School No.7 in Talas, a piece of ceiling fell in a classroom – thankfully, the children managed to dodge out of the way. In the same ill-fated classroom, a teacher fell through the floor. Yet classes continued; there are not enough classrooms in the school in any case.
“We study relying on the will of God,” school principals will say, admitting that parents are afraid to let their children go to school. But many have no other option. The principals explain that the children who study in these schools are those who can’t go elsewhere.
Barriers to learning, threats to well-being
Childrens’ safety is not only an issue in dilapidated schools. Another 400 schools in Kyrgyzstan are in need of major repairs and may move onto the list of dilapidated schools at any time.
According to various estimates, between a quarter and a third of schools in the country are in this kind of deplorable condition. At least 300,000 children study in these schools every day.
Just how many schools are dangerous in Kyrgyzstan?
Most likely, the numbers of school buildings in a dangerous state are higher than we present here. Government officials rarely update this information.
We combined all the available data into a single database and put each school on the map. Today, this is the most complete information on schools in Kyrgyzstan, but it needs further development. The authors have made the database available for research and comment.
You can also explore the situation further or find a specific school using the interactive map.
Aside from the likelihood of accidents, studying in these schools is also dangerous for students’ general health. Wooden floors rot, roofs leak, ceilings and walls turn black with mold.
“In winter, we try not to have classes in this classroom: if it’s heated, we suffocate,” reported faculty members at the Yusup Abdrakhmanov secondary school in the village of Ananyevo, Issyk-Kul region. When the heating system is on, “there’s smoke all over the school, and you can’t see anything in the hallway,” a teacher explained.
“We have to choose: it’s either warm but there’s not enough air or there’s enough air but it’s cold. We usually choose the latter. Both the children and the teachers often get sick.”
Of course, these infrastructure problems cause the quality of education to suffer. Children miss lessons due to illness, and during classes they complain about smoke and cold. Not enough light comes in through the windows, so children have eye strain. At the same time, almost every school is overcrowded: children study in three shifts, and three people sit at one desk.
These problems exist in almost all schools in Kyrgyzstan. As of 2011, only 13% of schools had central heating. The rest were heated mainly by coal or electricity; 16% of schools had no heating system at all. More than 86% of schools did not have a fire alarm system installed.
What are the Kyrgyzstani government’s obligations?
According to Kyrgyzstan’s law on education, the government guarantees citizens the right to free general secondary education and must create “the necessary socio-economic conditions”. This means that, among other things, the government should take responsibility for the construction and renovation of schools. But in reality, this does not happen.
The worrying state of the country’s schools is not new information for Kyrgyzstan’s government.
During election campaigns, this issue often arises at meetings between candidates and voters, especially in districts and villages where the local authorities or school principals have asked the authorities to build a new school. Citizens send written requests, too. Yet the government has a routine answer for them: you are raising an important issue; when we have the opportunity, we will definitely examine it.
Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Education and Science recognises that “specialised, modern, renovated buildings for the educational process” affect the quality of education and that building and improving schools is an important task for state education policy. However, the action plan for the government’s education development programme for 2021–2040 does not include improving infrastructure.
Janar Akayev, member of parliament and deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on education, explained how he forces the government to allocate funds for school infrastructure. From his experience, it is not enough to just write letters – he finds he has to push the issue through several different government bodies using a hands-on approach.
“When I get a message about dilapidated schools, I go to the prime minister. The prime minister says: ‘OK, OK, leave the letter here, we will examine it.’ I say, ‘No, put a signature on it. Give me this letter right away.’ So the prime minister puts a stamp on it, and I immediately take it and go to the minister of finance. He says: ‘OK, we will look at it.’ I say: ‘No, let me bring the letter to the head of the department or the expert.’ I go to them. They tell me that members of parliament don’t usually visit them, but that I should give them my letter anyway. Now, if you work like that, you can find the money. But many members of parliament or school principals simply write letters, and these letters may not be read.”
Unfortunately, while Kyrgyzstani parliamentarians often ensure that new schools are built in their home districts, villages without high-ranking officials in the capital are often left without school funding.
Then, in places where funds are allocated towards new schools, the government often doesn’t give enough money to complete the buildings. According to Akayev, this is a common situation across the country, and one that results in “money down the drain, because everything has to be rebuilt later”. New schools’ foundations and walls are built, but when winter comes, they fall apart, and no further funds are forthcoming.
Millions of soms are needed to build new schools, with each one costing an estimated 60 million soms. According to the authors’ estimates based on official data, between 7.5 and 10 billion soms are needed to solve the problem of dilapidated schools. The annual budget of the Ministry of Education is about 27 billion soms, and the lion’s share of these funds, more than 80%, goes on the salaries of teachers and other personnel. In effect, the state budget should cover the costs of major repairs, but the money is simply not there.
Therefore, the principals of some schools – representing the exception rather than the rule – no longer rely on the government; they have learned how to draw up funding applications and send them to international bodies.
“Our members of parliament are queuing up to ask Arab foundations to build schools in their villages,” said Akayev. “When [Sooronbay] Jeenbekov was president, I went to him and said that a rural school needed to be built in the Alai region, so we should put this into the plan. He replied that he couldn’t promise funds from the budget, but would ‘talk to the Arabs’. So even our country’s president expected schools to be built with foreign funds.”
Covering up the cracks
Back in 2011, investment in education across the regions of Kyrgyzstan amounted to about one per cent of the required sum. Since then, nothing has changed – leaving principals and teachers themselves to shore up the cracks in their school’s crumbling walls. But some cracks are simply impossible to cover up.
At the Nookat district’s art school in southern Kyrgyzstan, landscapes, portraits and other work by students adorn the walls. But while they are pleasing to the eye, they also cover the huge cracks that run across the whole building. “This is us covering our wounds. You put it up and it’s all hidden. But one day all this will collapse, and then it will be too late,” said school principal Isa Alymbekov.
Indeed, several principals of dilapidated schools shared a similar opinion: that it will take more schools collapsing for there to be any progress on the issue.
Akayev agrees: “For the government to allocate money and build new schools, something terrible must happen: an accident, God forbid.”
Many principals, tired of waiting, go into politics. Gulnara Satymkulova, who guided several of the authors around an ashar school in Talas, has been a member of the local council for several years. She is used to yelling over others when discussing the budget.
“This is where these issues get resolved,’ she said. “They want sporting events or some anniversary celebrations. I say: ‘I don’t care, spend money on our children. Why do they have to study in damp rooms, in places where the floors collapse? Tomorrow, we will have a sick generation. What about your sporting events then? Let’s think about the next generation.’”
This article was originally published on Radio Azattyk in Russian. openDemocracy publishes the translation exclusively here.
This project was implemented with the support of
IDEM, ‘School of Data Kyrgyzstan’, SILK, JMC Department AUCA.
Taalaibek Talantbek uulu
Taalaibek Talantbek uulu
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