The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in April 2010 committing Pakistan to provide free and compulsory education to all children below the age of 16 was a time of hope for educationalists. It offered the prospects of seriously tackling the lingering problem of unacceptably high illiteracy due to the fact that millions of children still remain out of school. It has now been four years since the Amendment passed, but there is not much progress on the ground.
The release of the latest International Crisis Group (ICG) Report for Pakistan entitled Education Reform in Pakistan draws attention to the prevailing challenges afflicting our impoverished education sector. It points out, for example, how high illiteracy rates, significant gender disparities and glaring rural-urban educational gaps are preventing Pakistan from meeting its constitutional commitments and achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of providing universal primary education by 2015.
Despite the enormous task at hand, Pakistan’s combined federal and provincial budgetary allocation to education is the lowest in South Asia. It is thus not surprising that government-run schools lack adequate materials and basic facilities such as boundary walls, toilets or drinking water. However, the state will have to do far more than improve infrastructure or even increase the numbers of schools and teachers. The quality of teaching needs to be drastically improved since the current education system is not producing a responsible citizenry capable of competing in the globalised labour market.
Since provincial textbook boards have been slow to develop adequate teaching material, the existing curriculum overemphasises the need for national cohesion based on the hatred of others, and undermining regional diversity.
Instead of paying attention to what is being taught, debate has been around the medium of instruction. This has instigated failed attempts to introduce English as a medium of instruction, resulting in policy backtracking and confusion. There is also a lack of clarity about the teaching of regional languages. Many teachers and even provincial education department officials, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for example, have reportedly misunderstood the plan to introduce regional languages as a separate subject as an attempt to adopt them as the medium of instruction.
On the other hand, natural disasters and the ongoing conflict in the country have caused major disruptions. The state’s inadequate natural disaster mitigation has not been able to prevent massive damage to school infrastructure. Internal displacements of population, and militant targeting of schools, particularly their opposition to girls education, have further undermined educational goals.
None of the provincial governments have been able to implement effective reforms to deal with the phenomenon of unregulated and foreign funded madrassas, many of which continue to reinforce societal myopia by propagating religious and sectarian hatred.
Conversely, international donor agencies continue endorsing the need to promote private schooling as the means to overcome these shortcomings. Besides charging fees, due to which their accessibility remains a problem for poorer households, many of these private schools also do not hire adequately qualified teachers or provide an adequate level of education.
While the ICG report has not held itself back from criticising the Pakistani government, it has shied away from blaming donor agencies for the problems plaguing the education sector in the country. While admitting that donor agencies fund most of the educational budget, ICG remains critical of Pakistani decision-makers’ political will, rather than also incriminating inadequate donor policies and programmes for their failure to address the above problems.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2014.