The need for public education reforms

Published: January 20, 2014
The writer holds an M.Ed from Harvard University and serves as Director for the Khadim Ali Shah Bokhari Institute in Karachi

The writer holds an M.Ed from Harvard University and serves as Director for the Khadim Ali Shah Bokhari Institute in Karachi

When one reads about the recent rankings released by Unesco that place Pakistan on the 180th place in terms of literacy, one does not know whether to reach for a gun or to simply sit and weep. The chickens have indeed come home to roost.

Those who had their schooling in the 1960s and 1970s would clearly remember that back then, the difference between students who did their matriculation and those appearing for O-levels was not unbridgeable, with both kinds of students entering centres of higher learning, foreign as well as local, in proportionate numbers. Countless professionals including doctors, engineers, lawyers, what have you, in top-level positions today came out of the Matric system. Sadly, this is not at all the case anymore.

The greatest damage to Pakistan happened as a result of the ill-conceived educational policies of the 1970s. Bhutto’s decision to nationalise the education sector in 1972 created, on the one hand, administrative mayhem and led to teachers’ revolt in government schools, while on the other, it effectually destroyed most of the small, inexpensive non-elite private schools which were imparting English medium education to the middle- and the lower-middle class. That this was perhaps done intentionally can be gauged from the fact that only schools for the children of the less-privileged were brought under the ambit of the state while institutions where the well-heeled, including politicians, educated their kids were spared these machinations.

The fatal blow to education for the masses came from Ziaul Haq and his ‘Urdu-only’ policies for government schools, which decisively demolished the ladder to social progress for the lower strata of society.

It is also relevant to mention that it was Zia’s denationalisation of education that spawned the new breed of elite private schooling and without taking anything away from the good results that the hard work of the teachers of these schools produces, the fact remains that such institutions are expensive and too far out of the reach of the common man to be able to solve the daunting issue of massive and ever-increasing illiteracy.

Only a person who has access to (even a half decent) education can change his or her own destiny, and perhaps, even the destiny of his or her nation, and history is replete with the names of such people. This door has been callously shut to the poor in Pakistan and it is this sense of ‘disentitlement’ that leaves them no option but to embrace distorted versions of religiosity as a source of empowerment.

It is only stating the obvious that the language divide is a cruel impediment to the advancement and expansion of education in Pakistan. In this regard, one feels that the decision by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government to introduce English as the medium of instruction in public schools is the right one, although whether this is just mere political sloganeering remains to be seen. Proper teacher training will have to be undertaken on a war footing to make this even remotely possible.

With just one year remaining, it should be quite obvious that Pakistan will miss by a wide margin all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) pertaining to education. Particularly alarming, though hardly surprising, is its failure to attain universal primary literacy that it had committed itself to achieve by 2015. The fact remains that 70 to 80 per cent of the children in this country still depend on government schools for their education, and with that system in a shambles, talking about MDGs is just a pipe dream. Reform of public education, particularly at the primary level, is an imperative for the attainment of these goals and for Pakistan to reach even a modicum of development. Our work is cut out.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2014.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (13)

  • shahid
    Jan 20, 2014 - 12:20AM

    ‘Urdu-only’ policies for government schools, which decisively demolished the ladder to social progress for the lower strata of society.

    Some one who does not understand how important it is for one to use their own language as primary medium of instruction should really be doing something other than writing abot education. Which technologically advanced country in the world does not do this? German, China, Japan, RUssia, Sweden, Holland, France, Britain? English is a useful language to know but learning it as a language is quite different from using it as the primary means of education. Ask any one who knows anything about education and he/she will tell you the same thing.


  • Nadir
    Jan 20, 2014 - 1:29AM

    Our chattering classes are only interested in the affairs of the HEC and have a top down view of education. What a shame and how many billions wasted.Recommend

  • middle ground
    Jan 20, 2014 - 10:03AM

    How many kids can speak Urdu before going to primary school in KPK, or Punjab, or any other province for that matter? If we can teach them in Urdu (that they don’t speak) from primary school, we can also teach them in English. The question is how to find competent teachers. The solution could be to utilize the internet as much as possible. The use of internet will increase in education at all levels in future everywhere in the world and we will be doing a lot of good for our future generations if we adopt it now. However, forcing English medium on everybody may not be the solution to start with either. We should provide at least one English medium class in all public schools and let the parents decide what they want for their children.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Jan 20, 2014 - 6:31PM

    Very well written sir.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Jan 20, 2014 - 8:26PM

    Is there any reason why the children in the provinces do not receive the primary education in their native language? The author should not use the terms such as “distorted versions of religiosity” ! He should know having visited the Harvard which inititialy was set up for lessons in theology!

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Nasir Hasan
    Jan 21, 2014 - 12:10AM

    It is easy to list the various countries where education is delivered in the language of those lands. However behind it is an educational infrastructure that published books in the native tongue. This is a process that takes a considerable amount of time, perhaps a generation.
    Pakistan has no such infrastructure dedicated to education and the publishing of books etc. in Urdu. Pakistan does not have the luxury of the time required. Our literacy rates and quality and standards of education cannot languish any longer. For the simple sake of expediency (sadly) English and the adoption thereof is a very valid option.
    Nasir Hasan


    Jan 21, 2014 - 12:54AM



  • Jan 21, 2014 - 5:08AM

    Great article, very well written! You nailed it… the mess of our education system!

    It boils down to, “keep the people ignorant and uneducated, they remain debt slaves, do not know & therefore can not question their rights…while the leaders continue to satiate their insatiable greed for power and money!”

    The question remains, what needs to happen for the reform to begin…clean up at the bottom or clean up at the top?


  • Fayez Shamim
    Jan 21, 2014 - 1:46PM

    Excellent informative article by Director Sir proud to be a student of Khadim Ali Shah Bokhari Institute


  • Ali Asghar Rangwala
    Jan 21, 2014 - 11:49PM

    Generations of under-privileged children (especially in the rural areas) and their parents either do not have the capacity to allow the children time to be educated or do not have appropriate role models of success through education. Desire to educate and be educated must first come from within, environmental factors (such as availability of affordable schools and a safe and secure community) is secondary and legislation (for an educated citizenry) is tertiary. It is important to show the benefits of education to the current crop of school going children, who in turn will become the role models for the next generation.


  • Ali Asghar Rangwala
    Jan 22, 2014 - 12:09AM

    @Shahid @Nasir
    It is possible to educate in Urdu in the primary to HSC level education since there exists enough content in all subjects, and indeed more is being developed continuously. Based on personal experience there are sufficient university level books on various subjects in the social sciences, i.e. economics, history etc. But in the STEM curriculum there may be insufficient books in Urdu for teaching. It is improbable that a student who has not studied in the “English medium” in primary/secondary school could sufficiently master the English language at the university level to be able to learn/study science and technology curriculum. Additionally Pakistan is much more dependent on other countries for its economic objectives then some of the countries where education in the “mother tongue” works as they may be economically, industrially, and culturally more self-reliant.


  • Mariam
    Jan 22, 2014 - 9:02PM

    Wonderful article, Hasan! Just a week back I was discussing this very thing thing with a few people. The need for a drastic change in our national curriculum (written, taught and assessed) , especially at the primary level, which can be implemented by the public schools and the examining bodies. We are in dire need of a public education reform. Very well written and thought provoking! A much needed article!


  • Fareen
    Mar 2, 2014 - 11:32AM

    Great line in a very well-written article:

    The fatal blow to education for the masses came from Ziaul Haq and his ‘Urdu-only’ policies for government schools, which decisively demolished the ladder to social progress for the lower strata of society.


More in Opinion