KARACHI: It was an odd experience, listening to the participants of the Karachi Literature Festival’s (KLF) session on State School Reforms. It was almost as if four people in four soundproof rooms were talking at intervals and the audience could hear their monologues but they could not hear each other.
Nuclear physicist and writer Pervez Hoodbhoy moderated the panel comprising of Alif Ailaan Campaign Director Mohsharraf Zaidi, former state minister for education Shahnaz Wazir Ali, and singer and Zindagi Trust founder Shehzad Roy.
All four of them came armed with their talking points which was a relief after hearing other ill-prepared panellists. They each explained how education in Pakistan is in a state of decline, pointed out the systemic rot, the mismatched demand and supply, and so on. But each one quietly held on to their own version of the problem so tightly that there was no room left to discover that the other person’s suggested intervention is just another part of their solution.
Before introducing Wazir, Hoodbhoy asks, “At the heart of it, is it a question of resource allocation or is it something contained in our national mind set which does not allow us to give real education in schools?” For the weary physicist, content is paramount. And he revisits it twice in the course of the talks.
But, for Wazir, someone who has held several public offices, the crux of the issue is not necessarily content, it’s about supply. She talks about a “political economy which surrounds education which does not take into account the demand of several voiceless demographics – the impoverished, the disenfranchised who do not have a strong voice in the decision making of the country.”
For the former minister, the demand for education is almost universal. “But it is a supply side issue. A supply side dominated by bureaucratic issues. They treat it how they would build a road.” With education ministers who do not know the components of education, not much more can be expected, she suggests.
However, she insists, education is not a commodity to trade off in the market place, with private schools mushrooming as an answer.
“We say market forces should dominate everything but I think it is necessary to reset that balance. Education is fundamental to the human being and must be provided in that context.”
When it comes to Zaidi, he turns to the KLF hoarding as an excellent illustration of what is wrong with the current state school system. “Who do we have to thank for this focus on literature, on learning, the Oxford University Press?” And as Zaidi goes on to list the sponsors – the Germans, the French, the British, the Italians and the black sheep of the lot, the US – there is no need for him to point out the obvious missing quotient; the Pakistanis.
Like Wazir, Zaidi notes the education sector takes a pummelling from politicos but not because they do not know how things are run, but because they do know how to profit from it. “If we say politicians aren’t interested in education, I won’t agree. They thrive on two aspects of education – buildings and teachers.” There is money in awarding contracts, even if the buildings fall in earthquakes and kill children, and there is influence to be peddled in hiring teachers, he says,
And it is these teachers, he argues, who cause 0.15 million children to drop out after class one in Sindh. From 0.65 million to 0.5 million in class two. Armed with only a matriculation degree, teachers are brought in to curry favour, putting a damper on the appetite for schooling of children and their parents.
“They are leaving because the quality of basic reading and writing is so poor, parents don’t see how their children will have a better future by staying on in school.”
If you do not feel outraged by this, Zaidi quietly comments, and you do not hold your politicians by the scruff of their necks, there will be no change.
Roy has a different agenda, he wants to rewire the entire engine but piecemeal, using soft power to take everyone so far along the road that coming back makes no sense to them anymore. Though as he talks, it comes across that his one school, plug one hole at a time answer might not be suitable for the behemoth the public school system is.
He explains how Fatimah Jinnah Government School was actually eight schools inside one building, with eight principals and no cohesion when Zindagi Trust wanted to transfer its management as an extended ‘adopt a school' effort.
“They had designated classrooms into separate schools within the same building,” something which the trust battled to change. And its efforts snowballed into Sindh adopting a consolidation policy, shares Roy, which converts several small schools in the same area into one, to better manage education.
Even with the sense of isolated arguments, the panellists and the moderator did touch one common ground, literally the lowest common denominator to the evils plaguing public schools – politicians, whom we voted in, with no will to do better.
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