In Turkmenistan, some teachers in the Mary and Balkan provinces have been going door-to-door looking for kids to fill their classes, many of which are half-empty.
Education officials in those impoverished regions are now contemplating merging classes due to a shortage of children born in 2017, a move aimed at optimizing resources in the face of the unexpected low enrollment, seen as a result of the country's yearslong economic downturn and corresponding population decrease as people seek jobs and better lives abroad.
An RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent in the western Balkan region reported a drop in first-graders in some schools of 40-50 percent compared to last year.
"Secondary schools...in Turkmenbashi, designed for 1,300 pupils, but for the last five years, they have enrolled no more than 950 pupils. There are four first-grade classes in this school. Last year, there were 27-29 pupils in each class, but this year there are 12 kids in each first-grade class," a school source in the Balkan region told RFE/RL.
Research in Turkmenistan in 2021 by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that education wasn't provided equally in remote areas of Turkmenistan. While more than 70 percent of second- and third-graders have basic reading skills in the capital, Ashgabat, only 34 percent of the schoolchildren in Balkan Province possess the same reading ability.
While teachers in Turkmenistan are searching for students, other countries in Central Asia face a shortage of teachers, schools, and textbooks.
Kazakh officials revealed that in the new academic year, more than 382,000 6-year-olds had enrolled in first grades across the country.
But there is a significant lack of space in schools, with an estimated shortfall of 270,000 desks. That has led to tens of thousands of students having to study by splitting their time between morning and night shifts due to a lack of school space, even in the capital, Astana.
Parents residing in newly constructed neighborhoods in Astana are grappling with the challenge of finding available schools close to home. Astana officials say there are no school places for more than 26,000 children in the city, forcing many children to travel many kilometers away to attend school.
In eight city schools, students study in three shifts and, in more than 20 schools, the number of pupils exceeds the accepted class average, as classrooms are overcrowded.
Most of Astana's newly built areas need more state-funded schools and kindergartens. Due to this schooling problem, some people have contemplated moving away from the capital in search of more accessible and affordable educational options.
Erzhan Akhmetzhanuly, an education expert, told RFE/RL that merely building new schools will not fully solve the problem. Instead, addressing the issue of internal migration -- a major reason for the school shortages -- requires improving the quality of education in the regions.
"If 20,000 children are born in Astana annually, 20,000 come from other regions. Astana will never be able to find school places for 40,000 children [every year]. Therefore, this problem can only be solved by developing the regions," he said.
The new academic year in Kyrgyzstan was quickly followed by the dismissal of Education Minister Kanybek Imanaliev, who was relieved of his duties by President Sadyr Japarov on September 7. The decision was made in response to the pressing issue and huge public criticism of schoolbook shortages.
The shortage of textbooks in Kyrgyzstan and Imanaliev's firing heated up debates on the quality of public education. Officials say that to supply every student with state-funded textbooks, Kyrgyzstan needs at least 5 billion soms ($56.7 million) per year, but the state budget only provides a fraction of that, 324 million soms ($3.6 million) per year, and half of that money comes from a rental fee that is being charged to parents for use of the books.
In Kyrgyzstan, every student needs to pay 25 soms ($0.28) for each textbook provided by the school.
The country has more than 2,350 secondary schools, and almost all of them operate with a morning and an evening shift. School shortages are the main problem in the capital, Bishkek, and in nearby villages there are cases where children study in classrooms with 40-45 other students.
During a parliament session on September 6, deputy Sarapatkan Mazhitova said more than 150,000 6-year-olds began the new academic year, with some schools having 60 students per class, and situations where three children are sharing one desk.
"What quality [of education] can we talk about under such circumstances? There is a shortage of textbooks and schools. This creates a big problem for parents, who must buy textbooks with their own money. We allocated 152 million soms ($1.2 million) from the public budget for textbooks. However, the shortage of new textbooks is the main problem," Mazhitova said.
To help address the school shortage, Kyrgyzstan receives assistance from various foreign countries. Last year, Azerbaijan helped build a school in Bishkek and Russia started construction of nine schools.
Experts say this assistance cannot fully resolve the issues facing public education in the country. On top of everything else, some 250 school buildings in Kyrgyzstan are reportedly in critical condition.
While Tashkent recently built a new school in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan on behalf of the state, the lack of educational resources inside Uzbekistan is a major challenge for its growing population: in the last few years more than 1 million kids are starting first grade due to the rapid growth of the population.
At the start of this school year, Saida Mirziyoeva, the head of the presidential administration and daughter of President Shavkat Mirziyoev, said the construction of schools in the country was not keeping up with the number of new children.
"If more than 1 million babies are born a year, approximately 1.2 million children will go to first grade in this new school year, and Uzbekistan doesn't have school places for 1.2 million students," Mirziyoeva said.
According to official data, there are 10,522 public schools in Uzbekistan, and enrollment for the new school year is 6.5 million students, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, with some teachers trying to teach 40-50 students per class. Even in the capital, Tashkent, schoolchildren do not have enough places and they must study alternately in various shifts, as in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Komil Jalilov, a Tashkent-based education expert, says there are other more complex and acute problems in the public school system, such as access to water and proper toilets, in addition to the overcrowded classrooms.
"There's a shortage of qualified teachers due to low salaries. Many teachers prefer to work elsewhere, such as tutoring or private centers, to earn more money. Those who remain in school must take on more hours to increase their salary, which affects their work quality. Moreover, schools have insufficient funding, and the financing [across the country] is unequal," Jalilov told RFE/RL.
Commenting on attempts to modernize the Uzbek school system, Jalilov said the authorities often change their minds, shifting from one system to another.
"The problem, as I see it, is that the government does not have a clear idea of what school education is about and is experimenting too much," he said. "For example, there was too much talk about introducing Finnish standards, but now the buzz about Finland is gone and the government is saying that school graduates should know at least two foreign languages and master at least one profession. So, there are no clear mid- or long-term strategies, the government's vision on school education changes too often. This is dangerous -- we are always experimenting...with no research behind those experiments."
Similar Woes In Tajikistan
Tajikistan's population has skyrocketed to more than 10 million people in recent years and 2.2 million schoolchildren reported for school on September 1. Officials claimed the government constructed 312 new schools and nurseries in preparation for the new year. But the education system is reportedly some 4,000 teachers short of the total needed.
Muhammedsadiq Abdurazzakov, an expert on education in Tajikistan, is unhappy with new schools. "Magnificent schools are being opened, but there are no worthy teachers in them," he said.
Abdurazzakov also expressed concern about recruiting young graduates to teach in schools. "When a university graduate comes to school to complete an internship and does not even understand the curriculum of an elementary school, then what can he or she teach to schoolchildren as a teacher?"
Some experts warn that the shortage of teachers in Tajikistan is largely influenced by emigration. Due to economic stagnation in the country, the number of Tajik labor migrants in Russia has reportedly reached about 3 million.