Educating Ourselves on Education in Pakistan

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Sahar Pirzada[1]

Education builds society. It builds character. It builds thought, decisions, outlook, perspective but often we are only as good as the text book we were made to read or more importantly, the teacher we had ….as open as their educational posture and exposure would be allowed to teach us. Our thought is morphed from theirs. We lead the future from a point stuck in the limitations of the  teachers mind, who himself was a product of what was designed to keep status quo of myth and culture, of local society and it’s choking hold on our world view. We evolve in the same convoluted forms as our teachers for like them, we are a product of the system. Can anyone catch a Catch 22 here? And so perhaps Albert Einstien rightly said, “the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

Let us then do away with education so that we may learn.

It appears that perhaps the governments of yesteryear had this epiphany a long time ago as they have bungled up the educational process with bad decision-making ranging from constrained budget allocations to the sector, to myopic, band-aid solutionism policies, to endorsement of stagnant curriculum, to manipulated curriculum in a fluctuating preference for medium of instruction, to the very agents and routes of delivery. Conceive it, and it has been attempted. If one were to play the devil’s advocate, one could say it were to steer us in a direction to ‘learn’ as stated earlier, thus avoiding effective and meaningful education altogether.  And to an extent, learn we have, at least in terms of what not to do, what does not work, what is not designed towards an end and paradoxically, what is specifically designed towards an ideological end through education itself. We the people have learnt these lessons bitterly in the resultant socio economic mess, intellectual paralysis and drought of self-empowerment. It appears we ourselves have to learn from these mistakes because “Governments never learn. Only people learn” (Milton Friedman).

The total population in Pakistan was last recorded at 188.2 million people in 2014 from 45.9 million in 1960, changing 310 percent during the last 54 years. The population of Pakistan represents 2.56 percent of the world´s total population which would indicate that one person in every 39 people on the planet is a resident of Pakistan. Of those 1 in 39 people on the planet, according to the Pakistan Social & Living Standards Survey 2012-13 Gross Enrollment Rate for Primary Schools (age 5-9) at national level has decreased slightly to 91% in 2012-2013 from 92% in 2010-11. Punjab with primary level GER at 98% is highest and Balochistan at 73% is lowest. Net enrollment rate has increased to 57% from 56% in the previous year. The PSLMN reflects enrollment statistics in both private and public schools and shows a decrease in the share of enrollments in government schools. The overall share has decreased from 68% in 2010- 11 to 66% in 2012-13.

In a recent report by Alif Ailaan, ‘25 Million Broken Promises: The Crisis of Out of School Children in Pakistan’ it is pointed out,

that over 25 million of 5 to 16 year olds are out of school. As with every other development indicator there is a gender divide. 11.4 million boys and 13.7 million girls are out of school. Moreover, children from lower income families are 6 times more likely to be out of school than their rich counterparts. In another estimate, 57% of all OOSC belong to rural areas.”

This claim was contested by Dr Zeba Sattar , Senior Associate at the Population Council &  researcher Maqsood Sadiq as being a gross overestimation of about 10 million as ‘children’ are defined as being upto the age of 15, and 16 year olds are considered ‘youth’ despite the fact that the Constitution, in Article 25-A talks of the rights of education of ‘children’ aged 5-16 years and that in fact, the proportion of out of school children has come down from 46% to 31% in the last decade. Regardless of the statistics battle, the point to consider is that a serious problem exists and focused advocacy needs to nudge policy planning  towards more meaningful development.

Education remains a low priority and steers nowhere near reform with a maximum budget allocation over the years of 2.4% of GDP, despite the good intentions of the governments Vision 2025 which,

“ aims at substantial expansion in levels of education as well as improvements in the quality of education. A larger share of the GDP, at least 4% to education…. Key goals under this pillar are;

  • Universal primary education with 100% net primary enrolment.
  • Increase Higher Education coverage from 7% to 12 %”.

This, however, appears to be just a wish list for educational budgets which are never actually utilized effectively. Of these nominal allocated amounts, most goes to the upkeep of previously running projects leaving only a marginal figure for new development projects. We are, it would seem in a purposely orchestrated predicament. Is education low priority due to budget constraints, bad planning or a deliberate design to keep the masses entrenched in poverty and ignorance in an effort to sustain corrupt, self- serving governments and facilitate the feudal order to remain in power? Is it possibly a fear of the powers that may come to be through education for Edward Everett suggested that “Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.”

Statistics, especially those declared by government sources are self- serving and those given by so-called neutral agencies can be equally deceptive for the same purpose so it would be prudent to focus on other key areas that need our attention to form perspective, and in future, ameliorate policy decisions and approach to education in accordance to our particular context in Pakistan. By our particular context it is meant our indigenous socio-cultural, development and religious landscape where an imported model of educational reform may be completely redundant and would face resistance in implementation.

Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan obligates the state to provide free and compulsory quality education to children of the age group 5 to 16 years.

“The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such a manner as may be determined by law”.

Educational planning and management until 2011 was the responsibility of the Federal  Government, but under pressure of the devolution dynamic and under the 18th Amendment, education was declared a provincial responsibility. In April 2011 the Federal Ministry of Education was devolved to provinces.

This devolution brought several changes to the Constitution including the insertion of Article 25 –A which now classifies education as a fundamental right, to be provided by the government for children between the ages of 5-16 years, which though in the past too was a provision, but was not an enforceable right. Generally, devolution is considered to be a good idea however, an institutional framework along with its checks and balances needs to be in place before this law can be enforceable in a cohesive and effective way for the intent in which it was formulated. Doing away of the Concurrent List in the Fourth Schedule to the Constitution as a result of this law is another significant change which places 44 subjects on it to automatically be devolved to provinces which include curriculum, syllabus, planning, policy, centres of excellence and standards of education along with Islamic studies. Only four subjects remain with the Federal government.

Devoltion might have been an axe that we dropped on our own foot. In principal, for modern progressive states it is the most natural form of governmental evolution to take power away from the centre, but given the lack of infrastructure yet to support the major elements of educational devolution in a culture and social fabric such as ours is inviting trouble. This is quite evident in the current controversy of curriculum change in KP. There is an uproar about the proposed changes in content. Jamaat-e-Islami is vociferous in its opposition to changes made by previous governments where Quranic verses related to Physics, Chemistry and Biology were removed along with lessons on Muslim scientists and a lesson on the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) which was replaced with a lesson on Hellen Keller. The Jamaat demands the return to the 2002 curriculum developed by the Mutteheda Majlis-e-Amal regime. The PTI government seems to be in silent acquiescence but denies any such changes have been made and that the books being used are the same that were printed between 2009 and 2012. A majority of objections in the Provincial Assembly came from ANP leaders such as former Provincial Minister for Education, Sardar Hussain Babak who also denied that any changes were made during their government with the 2006 curriculum except an adjustment of Quranic verses according to age and the discreet inclusion of local heroes such as Bacha Khan, who incidentally is the father of ANP leader Wali Khan.

There are two lessons to be learnt here. One, curriculum is always a tool of manipulation on a set ideology and exists everywhere in the world as a part of long term governmental policy and prevalent social objectives and order commonly referred to as a ‘hidden curriculum’, a term  coined by Philip W. Jackson (Life In Classrooms, 1968). He argued that we need to understand ‘education’ as a socialization process. Its impact is longstanding and in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

The second lesson to be learnt is that there is no point in lamenting the JUI and PTIs attempt to justify its ends through curriculum. Wasn’t that the whole point of the 18th Amendment to let the provincial majorities make their own decisions regarding curriculum? Wasn’t this the reason this article was kicked off the Concurrent List?

There are certain concerns such as education that need to lie with the Federal Government, where policy makers can involve teachers, civil society and educationists to develop curriculi under tested structures and not at the whim of political leadership and changing political objectives.

Another point to consider is the authenticity and value of degrees that will be conferred in future if the last few items that remain with the Federal Government also fall to provincial authority (Standards in institutions of higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions; Thank the Lord for the Higher Education Commission). With the issue of fake degrees even at the ministerial level where Federal ministers can proudly confess that “ a degree is a degree whether fake or genuine” we are at potential risk of reducing the value of the degree to no more than the paper it is printed on. We have made our bed without much thought to how comfortable it will be for us, now we must learn to lie in it.

Another reality in the system of education in Pakistan is the education apartheid, a system divided against itself. We are a country that has multiple parallel systems of education. First there is the well- known division between the Urdu medium and English medium schools that exacerbates the existing social and economic divisions and leads to a virtual system of educational apartheid in the country, and a further social division in a country already torn by stratification. Both these systems run parallel and there is no meeting point between the two either socially or academically which bring about paralysis in potential reform which must be worked out within these constricting parameters.

By a loose estimate, the very scale of Pakistan’s education sector — more than 150,000 public education institutions serving over 21 million students and a huge private sector that serves another 12 million – presents formidable challenges.

The private sector schools again consist of two categories, the elite private schools that align themselves often to foreign degrees and universities and the private schools that target enrollment from lower middle class as an alternative to public schools, which though do not deliver in the same coin, happen to be a somewhat better alternative to government schooling. These schools, both elite and local that mushroom everywhere have pros and cons attached to their existence as they are business enterprises and ultimately their financial objective will always override the educational one. However, the space provided by inadequate schooling by the government allows them a raison the etre and a license to prosper. It is, in fact, in the government’s interest to support them in a task they themselves are failing to accomplish.

A third category is the ‘Madaris’ which engage mainly in religious education and lag behind in traditional formal educational structures. It is a popular pastime to judge these institutions with  grandiose censuring pronouncements and from within the cosseted lifestyles and viewpoints of the opinion makers and arm chair revolutionaries. However, one must understand that the madaris cater mainly to the most under-privileged of society who also have a right to education, which despite its commitment to the people based on the Millennium Development Goals, the government is falling short to provide. Attempts have been made in the past to streamline their  curricula and merge them with the governmental stream but those efforts have mostly failed. It is an area that requires focus and attention and we need to move from bias and exclusionism to inclusion and educational reform on all levels.

This brings us to yet another stream of education, Vocational Education. Perhaps it is the most useful of learning designed for the rural, and children from the lower income strata of society. Given the disadvantage of poor quality education in government schools, teacher absenteeism, outdated curricula, poor facilities like sanitation and teacher inflicted violence which compel students to stay out of school and lag behind at required academic level resulting in no real learning at the end of the cohort cycle, it seems an infinitely better option to educate such students in a trade. If at all children can be allowed to come to school at the opportunity cost of staying at home to help mothers, especially the girls, or for boys to contribute to the family income by working, it can only be justifiable if they are taught a skill or a trade that will automatically absorb them into the job stream. We have enough cases of BA and MA graduates who cannot find a job or have to take up jobs for which they are overqualified resulting in depression and find themselves in a psychological war that our country seems to be losing with itself. It is often that we see graduates working as janitors not just because of a dearth of viable jobs but because a basic graduate degree from a government institution does not equip most to string even a single sentence in English which is the official language of Pakistan or possess the skills to  link learning and knowledge to real life situations in the work stream. Education in textbooks is theoretical and outdated. Commenting on the ability of students to be fluent in English brings up the mammoth quagmire of the medium of instruction. The government cannot seem to make up its mind on the preferred medium of instruction and has over the years oscillated between English and Urdu.

Important to note here is that the debate lies between English and Urdu but quite ironically, this is not a language understood by a majority in the country. Pakistan is a multilingual and multiethnic country with six major and over 57 small languages.  People hailing from the KP are mostly not fluent in Urdu, neither are people of Punjab or Sindh or Balochistan. Urdu is spoken by just 7% of the population. It could almost be as foreign a language as English, the poor quality of which is taught by teachers who are inept in its use themselves which lands them with the responsibility of delivering content in double dutch. Quoting from a report on Language Policy, “Looking Beyond to Inform Within: Cultural Policy Case Studies for India” it is pointed out that

Language policies have far-reaching educational, economic, and political effects. In multiethnic countries, like Pakistan, language policies can determine who has access to schools, who has opportunities for economic advancement, who participates in political decisions and who has access to jobs etc. so medium of instruction is a crucial element of education.

Currently, Pakistan’s elementary school classrooms use multi-lingual teaching. Students are taught their provincial language (i.e. Sindhi, Punjabi), the national language (Urdu) and English as an official non-indigenous language. In a lot of cases Arabic is also taught to facilitate understanding of Islamic studies which is compulsory. It is self-evident that if students spend all their energy on learning and juggling 3- 4 languages they are left with no time, energy or motivation to focus on core curriculum subjects. One wonders whether developing polygot students in this way is a necessity or sabotage. Therefore, the language conundrum presents itself in the question of what language, how and whom to teach, eventually acting as an intellectual and academic black hole that sucks up the entire educational process.

Casting aside these problems of structure and form another issue that plagues the system is that of intent. Most education plans face two challenges. One, they are often not designed by educationists who understand educational challenges in a local context. The other being that governments fearing their survival to last the entire tenure of a 5 year government invest in educational development with band–aid like solutions which reveal themselves in tangible forms that can be cashed in before the next election.

Pronouncements of new universities or secondary schools are made so it looks good on books without gauging if there is an actual need for them, for example, of a secondary school in the targeted area where perhaps students are not even finishing the primary cohort, or if a new university to be constructed can be run or sustained with the required teaching staff, etc. Sometimes new construction is not needed and an underutilized older school building can be brought into use. The only aim is to feign development in the catchment area of a particular vote bank.

Band-aid solutions under the guise of big projects make it appear as if work is being done on education but in effect it has little or no long term, sustained impact. This, combined with corruption, lead to many a phenomenon like that of ‘ghost schools’. In a survey published by a leading newspaper about a year ago it was reported that

a survey carried out on the orders of the Supreme Court unveiled the deplorable condition of education in Pakistan, as it revealed that there were as many as 2,088 ghost schools in the country, 1,008 of them under illegal occupation, and an appalling 5,827 non-functional.

Statistical data at the time, a year ago revealed that

260,903 government and private institutions up to the level of secondary school existed in the country. Out of these, 2,088 were ‘ghost schools’, 1,008 schools were under illegal occupation, while 5,827 were non-functional. The most shocking numbers were submitted regarding Sindh where as many as 1,962 ghost schools exist, 419 of them are under illegal occupation and a staggering 4,285 schools are non-functional.

The police inaction in this regard is legendary and the illegal occupiers always go unpunished. The former district education officer, has occupied a part of a school in Jacobabad, and built a 2,000 square-foot bungalow. No action has been taken against him and his ilk, said the report.

In Ghotki, some of the schools were reportedly encroached upon by officials of the police department and the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) staff.”

The report also revealed that many schools in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa and Sindh were being run by proxy teachers and no action had been taken by the education department, despite several complaints. To this one can agree with Huguette Labelle, Chair of Transparency International when she said that,

“For schools to educate the corruption fighters of tomorrow they need to be free from corruption themselves. Without a strong dose of integrity, our schools and universities will fail to provide future leaders with the basic tools needed to succeed, and more importantly, to combat graft….With nearly a fifth of the world’s population between 15 and 24 years old, young people have the potential to` stop corruption both as the citizens of today and as the leaders of tomorrow.”  This is imperative if ultimately we are destined to turn into what our teachers were and absorb their world-view.

Luckily where there is intent to resolve a problem out of the box solutions can be used that prove very effective. Sometimes the simplest of initiatives can have a far-reaching impact. Recently a revolution was sparked against ghost schools in Sindh by a facebook campaign and accomplished results the government had previously not been able to achieve with all the state resources at its disposal. Pictures and names of ghost teachers in the area were posted on facebook that invited comments from its 40,000 users. The shame and exposure which ensued often reached the ghost teacher compelling them to do justice to their profession. It’s a simple idea, but it is expeditiously getting the teachers back in school.

Of late we are all exposed to political rhetoric about how the masses are being cheated out of their rights because the education system runs in distinct parallel streams. The chanting of uniformity in curriculum and one educational system for all wins a popular vote but in practical terms is a virtual impossibility. It should at this point in time, as things stand, not be encouraged at all. It is mere agitprop that toys with sentiments, and its purpose is not the uplift of the education system, its purpose is to divide further the cleave between those that are considered the haves and the have nots, to foment discontent. To have a uniform system across board given the situation as it stands with rural-urban-private-public-English/Urdu medium schools would either be thrusting ill equipped students into a dismal abyss that was contrived to ensure failure or drive the academic cream to mediocrity in order to justify an educational Marxism. Driving such uniform meritocracy as destiny is educational suicide. It shows the architects of this design in a very politically self- serving and ignorant avatar engulfed in an increasingly myopic microcosm.

Governments and political parties can give as much lip service to educational concerns as our tolerance and their sheer volubility will allow them, but the end game is about numbers that reflect or contradict the myth of performance. A Pildat survey on the post- May 2013 election’s first year performance of federal and provincial governments shows in the field of education the Federal governments score as zero, Balochistan got -18%, KP -42%,Punjab =24% and Sindh -36%.

Fate can be pre -ordained but destiny can be plied, prodded and shaped into whatever we envision for ourselves. Our economic, moral and social future is a direct function of education. Informal education that begins with the hand that rocks the cradle to formal education, the onus of which lies on the individual and the government both, needs serious, focused interest and positive intent. We need to move forward and soon. Ours is the same country that produced people like Dr Mehboob ul Haq whose vision was used by countries like South Korea making gigantic leaps in educational progression. South Korean leadership’s realization of the codependence of  human capital/education and economic development led them to adopt the Dr Mehboob-ul-Haq authored First Five Year Plan (1962-66) which proved an astounding success for the upward journey of the country.

In contradiction to what was said about education earlier, let us not surrender our hopes just yet because somewhere in this cacophonous orchestra of ringing rhetoric, pounding mismanagement, thumping policy deficiencies, bellowing corruption and screeching stagnation lie a few melodious notes of hope with conductors like Dr Mehboob ul Haq and perfectly pitched notes like Mala Yousafzai. Both on micro and macro level let us give education a shot for “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously” (G.K. Chesterton) and remaining in this state of  intolerable paralysis.

[1] The author is an educationist and an editor of Criterion Quarterly.