Producing uneducated literates

Published: February 5, 2014
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

“Can you name any prime minister of Pakistan?” I thought this was a simple question that children in senior classes (seventh and eighth grades) could answer easily. “Hmmm… Pervez Musharraf, Yousuf Raza Zardari.” There were many who didn’t know that Nawaz Sharif was the current prime minister. And in all the days that I went around talking to children in various schools, there was just one who could guess the current president’s name (I don’t really blame the children for this. Given the low visibility of Mr Mamnoon Hussain, there are many who would forget his status).

Such tales help explain better the lament in the latest Unesco global monitoring report titled “Education for All” that given the poor quality of education in developing countries, children are “failing to learn the most elementary skills”. Given the trends in education, the Unesco report further states that it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to become literate. This is because the condition of female education is the worst.

While we pile up experts and consultants on education mainly in Islamabad to design and implement programmes to educate Pakistan, no one is attending to the fact that poor quality education that may not necessarily result in social mobility or enhance possibilities for those registered in these programmes will not change the fate of the poor, or the country, at large.

The government would love to see every child enrolled in a school. That is certainly a good idea. But is there any attention being given to what is taught and what is the quality of the product? Many criticise the government primary and elementary education systems. Therefore, a parallel system was erected many years ago in the name of public-private partnership. The idea was for the government not to invest in the infrastructure or pay the teachers but leave the responsibility to private partners who would be paid the children’s fees. Many consider the project that was launched mainly in Punjab as a success story. According to the PTI’s Jahangir Tareen, the public-private partnership reduced costs for the state and provided better education. We already have many a consultant who have argued in the past that private schools are better than government schools. Such assessments are probably based on results. In the public-private partnership venture, the National Testing System (NTS) is a key variable. An exam is taken on a regular basis and those schools demonstrating a minimum 45 per cent of pass rate are given assistance.

But here is the catch. The private entrepreneurs who run a school or a chain of schools know that the government pays a fee for a certain number of children enrolled per school. Furthermore, there is little checking of how much is spent on paying teachers or on children. Thus, running schools have turned into a big racket and a profitable business. As per Mr Tareen’s formula, the government does not have to pay high fees to teachers or bother with discipline. The results may be comparatively better than in government schools. Recently, I had a chance to go around schools and educational institutions in south Punjab and it was interesting to learn that government schools were comparatively doing better in terms of level of general knowledge of children and their overall confidence.

The private schools are almost run madrassa style, which means, forcing children to learn by rote. The teachers are better disciplined in terms of being more fearful of losing their job so they place more emphasis on learning by rote than explaining concepts. But does one expect better from a teacher who gets paid a maximum of Rs3,000-4,000 a month? Most of these government-funded private schools tend to pay much less than the vouchers they make them sign. Referring to the Unesco report, one of the key reasons of poor quality education is an underpaid teacher. Yet, we expect our teachers, a majority of whom are females, to produce good results. Sadly, those whose kids go to grammar school type of educational institutions believe this is a workable system.

There are other layers of corruption as well, such as paying people for getting reasonable NTS results to remain in business. Or taking extra children who are used as dummies to fill places of absentees, especially on days when inspection teams visit to show almost 100 per cent attendance.

Yet, the poor tend to send their children for this kind of education mainly because it is free and in the hope that someday their children will make it to higher tiers of the socio-economic cadre. Surely, there must be some good examples out of this system as well. However, the key point is that education that compromises on quality does not succeed in producing the right product to help a nation grow.

The public-private partnership may seem like a profitable idea but it actually may not be the case. Surely, government schools in Punjab or Khyerb-Pakhtunkhwa do not match the standards of very competitive private schools and need improvement. In other provinces, like Sindh and Balochistan, conditions are abysmal. The product coming out of the schooling system has no capacity to compete. The number of ghost schools in these two provinces or in rural areas of south Punjab speak of the priority of the leadership. But then, the government badly needs to invest in education and the health of its citizens. As a former vice-chancellor of Bahauddin Zakariya University explained to me, our dire straits are because the state couldn’t fulfill its key responsibility to educate its people.

To repeat a cliche, it is not bombs and warheads that make nations strong but the quality of its educational institutions.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th,  2014.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • its (still) Economy stupid
    Feb 5, 2014 - 11:38PM

    Slogan of United Negro Fund is “Mind is a terrible thing to waste”. The current crisis in many countries is lack of coordination between the skill trained at school with that what industry needs. One of the solution is to allow industry to write the curriculum. It has been done in Bangalore, India. Once the industry driven curriculum is taught in schools industry will accept all the graduate. Such literate people will hopefully educate and train others.Recommend

  • Unknown
    Feb 5, 2014 - 11:39PM

    So the definition of educated literate according to the author is “the one who knows the names of the prime minister of Pakistan”. Wawoo. Google is the best best educated literate he not only knows the names of Pakistani prime minister rather names of prime minister of every country. :)
    Education doesn’t means what we know rather how we use our skills. Please stop promotion of ratta. What will a Pakistan student learn by rotting the names of useless prime ministers of Pakistan?Recommend

  • Nadir
    Feb 5, 2014 - 11:50PM

    These children should be told that they should be proud to be sacrificing their futures so that Generals can boast that they have nuclear weapons! In our top down approach to education the chattering classes will only celebrate and defend the HEC as it dishes out goodies. The rest are well, better left illiterate. After all, if the poor become educated where will our kids go?Recommend

  • Avtar
    Feb 6, 2014 - 12:00AM

    The quality of education is very important as the author has emphasized. Perhaps, the education department should be made independent of politicians who tend to change ‘education’ at their whim and fancy. The companies and the military have to spend a lot of time training employees on the job. In the subcontinent, it takes a lot of time for a recent graduate to become confident to do their jobs; they have to rely on experienced personnel.
    Education probably get a fraction of funding that the military establishment used to get. It probably still is the case.


  • Farid khan
    Feb 6, 2014 - 12:03AM

    The title is quiet good.


  • Parvez
    Feb 6, 2014 - 12:21AM

    That was an interesting read.
    The one aspect you left out mentioning was that the abysmal state of affars in most of our lower level schools is not by accident but rather by design and corruption is only a by product of this design.


  • Rex Minor
    Feb 6, 2014 - 12:52AM

    Madam, I know as a foreigner who your Prime Minister is, but not your defense or the foreign minister? Mr Nawaz Sharif is muddying the water by appearing with the new General in khaki and Express Tribune is adding to the confusion by printing daily a photo of the former General Parvez Musharaf. How on earth a school going child should come to terms with these personalities which are splashed in the media togetther with many other photos of the elites. The children are good in memorising but do they all have photogenic memory as well ?

    Rex Minor


  • Chaudhry Z. Ahmad
    Feb 6, 2014 - 1:36AM


    So the “definition” of Literate Educated, according to the ‘@Unknown’ is NOT to know the names of “useless prime ministers” of Pakistan. What a definition of education! And please remember “Google” is the BEST source of ANY information of any kind in this age and time and it, therefore, is THE best educated and the best educator. Also please remember education DOES mean what we know. You’ve no skills if you know nothing.


  • Midas
    Feb 6, 2014 - 2:05AM

    What is more concerning is educated illeterates, a joke – Quaide Azam reincarnated, roaming in Karachi, saw a man with his young son during day time having a kulfi. QA asked him if it was a public holiday, the man said no, QA asked why is this child not in school then, the man asked what will he do there? QA said will get education to serve the country, the man innocently replied this country has been exploited by only the educated, can you name one uneducated/illeterate who has done dis-service to this country?


  • OneRupee
    Feb 6, 2014 - 2:56AM

    The lesson from other countries where public services are let to the private sector is that there must be a robust and independent public regulator. The biggest danger is that services can very quickly become corrupt if this does not happen. The risk of that is even greater in Pakistan where corruption is already very open.


  • naeem khan Manhattan,Ks
    Feb 6, 2014 - 3:13AM

    The biggest problem with government funded schools (Urdu medium schools) is that either the Federal or Provincial governments sets the policies and priorities for these schools, they have no idea which location needs what kind of help, it is designed to fit every school and students. Here in Kansas, the schools are controlled by local governments and mostly financed through local taxes, we have an elected school board and they in turn hire the school district superintendent who oversee different schools and in case of bigger cities they even have more than one school superintendent for different schools districts, teachers are hired and fired by the locally elected education boards with the recommendation of school superintendent,Sure, the State does contribute because they also collect taxes in the name of these school districts. The school board is directly answerable to the local tax payers through regular open meetings and parents are encouraged to attend these meetings. It seems if the control of these Pakistani schools are managed by the local people through some competent Supritendent, results could be far better than it is now. I am a product of Urdu school from Mardan and still handicaped for writing and reading and understanding math, when the base of the education is poor, then we struggle to get higher education through out our adult lives. It borders on criminality to ignore to educate our children properly so they could compete with any one in the world.


  • water bottle
    Feb 6, 2014 - 7:44AM

    A teacher at a Madressah in Bangalore told me recently that what a child learns is 10% from the school, 20% from self learning and 70% from his parents.

    He was referring to any kind of education.

    You cannot change the children by giving them quality education in schools alone.

    You need to change the mindset of the parents. These children when they go home they have to have the environment that is conducive to their learning. Otherwise, 5-6 hours of school a day is a total waste of time.


  • Razi Azmi
    Feb 6, 2014 - 7:58AM

    It is astonishing that a writer of the calibre of Ayesha Siddiqa should think that knowing the names of PMs and Presidents is a sign of good education. She rates highly that which precisely is the bane of our educational system, namely, memorising of names, dates, events, equations etc, rather than acquiring the ability to think, question, analyse and conceptualise.


  • Muhammad Hassan Quraishi
    Feb 6, 2014 - 8:30AM

    The title covers the whole tale – What Pakistani youth will deliver in future?
    We have a wonderful example of Switzerland wherein all 4 languages (German, French, Romanian, Italian) are taught and all nationals equally learn them.
    But we after 60 years of Independence have not decided what should be the scope of languages in terms of education. Our education system is wideneing gap between different segments of society which ultimately result in disharmony and chaos.


  • Mirza
    Feb 6, 2014 - 11:02AM

    I fully agree with your comments. It is ironic that Pakistan spends millions on high and foreign education of elites and not much on the basic primary education of poor. Can we stop killing the future of our poor kids for WMD and foreign education of few privileged?


  • Munir
    Feb 6, 2014 - 11:53AM

    The quality of the School can be assessed by the performance of their students at University Entrance examination or any other exam conducted by NTS.
    The data available at NTS would be very useful in formulating the educational strategies by the provinces. Now Education is the provisional matter, so at least we expect PTI government in KPK to come up with some thing commendable.


  • Ammar
    Feb 6, 2014 - 12:18PM


    It is quite evident that you didn’t read the piece beyond “Name of Prime Minister” part. Do you know the meaning of ‘rote’? It is explained if you bother to read :)


  • Arif Ahmad
    Feb 6, 2014 - 12:24PM

    We as a nation have been unable to set our priorities regarding what kind of educated mass we need to produce for our country in the rapidly changing world. As a result, the education in our government school system is still governed and manged with the old and out-dated paradigms. Still in our schools, principals/head teachers are acting as administrative heads instead of transformatioal and pedagogical leaders. Still our teachers are teaching with the old paradigm of teacher-centred approaches to make the students learn the bookish facts through rot learning and memorizations. They are still in favour of corporal punishment for making their students obedient. Still the curriculum practiced in our schools lacks the important aspects of developing critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity which are the required skills expected from the educated mass of twenty first century. We are facing myraid problems of education in our country because we have been unable to set the proper direction of our education system. Efforts are being made to fine tune these issues instead of developing right policy options and proper implementation mechanisms. For example in KP introduction of English language has been initiated without analyzing the gravity of issues related to government education system. We will not be able produce the educated mass equipped with knowledge, skills and values required in the rapidly changing workplace of twenty first century, until and unless we demonstrate farsighted political will


  • chinoo
    Feb 6, 2014 - 12:42PM

    very nice written article but ground realities are more alarming than this. last year a friend of mine has told the very sad story of his son, who cleared the admission test for the renowned cadet college of sindh but cannot afford the above 300,000.00 lac admission fees of the college, in jamshoro. Now tell me how these type people whose children are eligible for the cadet course will go??? surely in government school / college, where is no useful facility available. even no clean water to drink and no washrooms and toilets. The basic ingredients of teacher, school and furniture is scare.


  • Uza Syed
    Feb 6, 2014 - 1:08PM

    The 1% population, the elites, in Pakistan wants and successfully keeps the rest where they are. The 99% of Pakistanis must unite & together struggle to smash the rule of this tinniest minority of powerful people, backed by their accumulated wealth. Keeping the masses in such apartheid like situation ensures the continuation of their rule here, it must end by any means necessary, any.


  • Parvez
    Feb 6, 2014 - 1:39PM

    @Uza Syed: Well said……and I hope someone can make the 99% realise that in fact they are the TRUE strength of this nation and not the 1 %.


  • joy
    Feb 6, 2014 - 6:38PM

    Respected author: I really admire the way you pen your thoughts and call a spade a spade.
    Don’t you think that in our part of the world, sweeping issues under the carpet is more of a norm than an exception.
    You celebrate/observe Kashmir day, we celebrate Kargil day. But do we observe ” do no rape day” or ” do not loot the govt, day”?
    The world has moved beyond Kashmir and Kargil. Mark my words today, the day is not far off when countries like Bangladesh would have raced so far ahead that we would just be left licking our self-created wounds.
    Literacy is just not about numbers, it is how to make better human beings. Alas, it ain’t happening. Recommend

  • ishrat salim
    Feb 6, 2014 - 7:45PM

    If one reads the first line of the author ” Can you name any PM of Pakistan “, then she expects that the kids should answer correctly ? such a question will definitely confuse anyone let alone kids….she has proved herself being one to be from the uneducated class….she did not ask ” who is the present PM of Pakistan “, which would get a better answer.Recommend

  • Feb 6, 2014 - 8:05PM

    very well written, fully agree with the writer specially the last two lines.Recommend

  • Sexton Blake
    Feb 7, 2014 - 12:19AM

    The writer is obviously presuming that politicians are important. However, is it really important who any Prime Minister is. They are usually hack politician getting order from unknown people above. Thus at the end of the day it does not really matter which party gets elected. I would like to think that children are being taught more important matters..


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