UNICEF schools boost learning in Turkmenistan

Two years ago Aigul, Nurgozel and Sahypjemal had never used a computer. Now they use the internet to browse English-language websites.

These 13-year-olds are so proud of what they know that sometimes our reporter doesn’t know who is interrupting who to tell us about their school and all the things they do there. And, most remarkably, the girls speak English so well that they almost make our interpreter redundant.

In an enthusiastic flurry of English and Russian words, the girls tell us about how they have learnt to speak English, about their new textbooks, how much they like to spend time at the after-school activity centre and even about their plans for the future. So how did all of this come about at rural school in the northernmost province of Turkmenistan?

School number 1 in Koneurgench district is one of the 20 model schools in Turkmenistan selected by UNICEF to receive support to help them develop into a Child-Friendly School.

A child-friendly school (CFS) creates an environment conducive for learning by respecting children’s rights and needs; it provides clean, healthy and safe facilities; it gives children the life-skills they need by employing interactive teaching methods that are suited to the child’s age, abilities and ways of learning; and it includes parents and the community in the management of the school. Most importantly, CFS offers an opportunity for pupils to meet outside the classroom and to improve their knowledge on life-skills, including protection from HIV infection, through interacting with their peers.

English language club

We first meet Aigul Chageliyeva, Nurgozel Geldiyeva and Sahypjemal Gurbanmuradova in the school activity centre, where they are keeping themselves busy making a collage. In the active centre the pupils are allowed to spend as much time as they like after their lessons finish. Thanks to UNICEF efforts the centre has good-quality games, resource books, dictionaries, jigsaw puzzles, a computer and a model of a skeleton and a microscope for science subjects. There is also an English language club that is run by Peace Corps Volunteers.

This is very much a novelty in Turkmenistan. In the past, opportunities for learning foreign languages were limited or even discouraged, meaning that knowledge of foreign languages has been sparse among the younger generations. Not so in School number 1. “English is easy,” said Aigul. “We have an English language club, we read English books and we also learn English by using the computers.”

“Our school is very good now. We have really good teachers and new textbooks with new information, poems, and pictures from the capital Ashgabat.”
When asked about their favourite subjects, all three girls name English as one of them. They tell us that English is important to know for their future.

“We speak Turkmen, English, Russian and some Uzbek,” added Sahypjemal proudly.
“Our school is very good now. We have really good teachers and new textbooks with new information, poems, and pictures from the capital Ashgabat.”

It should not come as a surprise that these young girls have ambitious career plans. Sahypjemal wants to become a teacher and Nurgozel a military officer while Aigul aspires to be a business woman doing import-export between Turkmenistan and America.

Teacher-friendly school

The teachers in School number 1 seem to agree that a child-friendly school is a teacher-friendly school as well.

“Since the school became child-friendly the pupils are more open-minded and active. They now feel they can act and speak freely,” said teacher Gulruh Saparova. She said that teachers don’t feel “threatened” by active pupils. “It means that we as teachers have to be just as active as the pupils!” she added.

The teachers at School number 1 were introduced to the child-friendly school methodologies through a training organised by UNICEF in 2006. Since then they have passed on these principles to teachers at other schools in their district. “All in all teaching has become more enjoyable,” said Saparova. “Sometimes pupils would even give us advice on how we should teach!”

It was only in 2005 that School number 1 joined the child-friendly school project coordinated by UNICEF, but it is already apparent that both pupils and teachers appreciate the changes that have happened to their school.