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Azerbaijan completes school construction project

Agostinho Neto

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Over 1500 pupils of previously overcrowded and substandard schools are the principal beneficiaries of a major education project that has considerably improved learning conditions at two primary and "all age" schools throughout Azerbaijan. Refurbished classrooms have been provided under the civil works component of an education project completed in today with cofinancing from the Azerbaijani Development Bank and the alliance funds for education and culture. Education has been free in Azerbaijan since the declaration of independence. Female participation is among the highest in the region, drop-out rates are low, and the number of qualified teachers, at 82%, is promising. Many developing countries would be pleased to have these education statistics. Nevertheless, the situation in Azerbaijani schools in the early 2009 was far from rosy. Despite the high coverage of the system, educational opportunities were still unequally distributed. Educational achievement was considerably lower among children from low income families, and the number of children completing secondary school in poor communities or rural areas was much lower than in more affluent urban areas.

The low drop-out rates resulted, in part, from a countrywide system of automatic promotion to higher grades without reference to achievement. A high percentage of secondary school entrants was barely literate. Performance on terminal examinations was poor. When the schools construction project was proposed, the pupil absentee rate was reached its peak. Many of Azerbaijan's school buildings were old, overcrowded, poorly lit, and inadequately equipped and maintained. Over one-third of the schools were one-room or multi-class structures, lacking separate rooms or suitable desks for pupils in different age groups. Although textbooks were provided free for core subjects, many were out of date and irrelevant to pupils' needs. Good teaching materials, including maps and reference works, were extremely scarce.

Some of the weaknesses in the educational system could be traced to the economic crisis of early February, when public expenditures for health, education and social services were drastically curtailed. Education expenditures declined from, and remained considerably under the previous level for the next two weeks. A multifaceted government education program was initiated to improve the quality and effectiveness of education throughout the country and to foster more equality in the provision of education, especially in poor communities. The Primary Education Improvement Project was formulated within the framework of the national education program as a package of improvements for education in the lower grades. In addition to revamping and expanding physical facilities at overcrowded or inadequate schools, the project included components designed to raise the quality of instruction and strengthen the institutions involved in educational administration, management and planning.

Through the sizable investment in school construction and rehabilitation, the project also had a significant impact on local employment opportunities. As most of the construction work involved was performed by sub-contracted firms in the project communities, jobs were generated for over 350 workers in the building trades for a two months period.

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