The announcement by the prime minister that 2011 will be the ‘Pakistan Year of Education’ bodes well for the future. The Pakistan Education Task Force has argued ever since its first meeting a year ago that Pakistan needs to give the highest possible to priority to education for good reasons.
By the middle of this century Pakistan will have a population close to 350 million — if they are all well-educated Pakistan could be a thriving Islamic Republic with a successful economy and a prosperous society contributing to solving problems not just within its borders but across the region. Without good education this positive outcome is unimaginable.
A ‘Year of Education’ could be the catalyst for a transformation of Pakistan's schools system. Completing this task, given the many problems that currently exist, is a task for a decade or more but if 2011 galvanised the country it could bring the energy and drive which would start the process.
My experience of working on education in dozens of countries tells me that it’s not unusual for leaders to declare that they will have a ‘Year of Education’ or ‘Reading’ or something similar. Most are little more than a speech or two and a fleeting media story after which everything returns to normal.
I am sure Prime Minister Gilani is much more ambitious than this. How could he ensure that Pakistan's ‘Year of Education’ is truly successful?
First, it would need support from a wide spectrum of Pakistan's leaders in politics, business and civil society. Given that the provinces are in the driving seat on education they need to sign up enthusiastically. The Year needs to be seen as a national mission not purely a federal initiative. In short, it will need to transcend day-to-day politics.
Second, the underlying theme needs to be that every child is entitled to a good education, as Pakistan's constitution promises. The ‘Year of Education’ should recognise those schools and teachers who are heroically contributing to making this possible while simultaneously starting to remove the barriers to this happening.
These barriers are substantial - and include in places inefficient and corrupt administration, teachers who don't turn up to work, poor quality facilities and poor quality teaching. These problems can't be solved in a year but unless parents see progress in tackling them then the proposed ‘Year’ will have a hollow ring.
Third, the country will need to reverse the trend and increase the proportion of national income it spends on education from below two per cent towards the four percent to which the government is committed. It will only be able to do this if it solves some of its wider fiscal problems.
Fourth, the message that education can transform the country's prospects needs to be communicated through every medium — radio, television, newspapers, the internet and the emerging social media. It also needs to be communicated by a variety of messengers — not just ministers and officials, not just teachers and headteachers but businesspeople, artists and musicians, for example.
Fifth, people need to come to believe that it is possible for Pakistan to have a much more successful education system than it currently does. The history of education in Pakistan is one of ambitious goals set and then missed, going right back to the first five-year plan in 1956 which set the goal of universal primary education by 1961.
Even now – fifty years on – around a third of children are not in school. Given this background it is hardly surprising that while many people aspire to transform education in Pakistan, they find it hard to believe it will happen in practice.
Yet many education systems have made this transition successfully; for example, Korea and Malaysia from the 1960s, Minas Gerais a large province in Brazil and a number of Indian states more recently. Some provinces of China, such as Shanghai, which topped a recent survey of 60 education systems, have also shown what is possible. Why not Pakistan?
Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2011.