For the past decade, both donor agencies and governments of developing countries have been trying to increase school enrolments in the effort to improve the dismal state of education.
According to the World Bank’s latest report on “Student Learning in South Asia”, governments in our region have managed to increase net enrolment from 75 per cent in 2000 to 89 per cent in 2010. Pakistan’s net enrolment rate has also jumped up from 58 per cent to 74 per cent between 2000 and 2011, even if it lags a bit behind the regional average.
Pakistan, like the other South Asian countries, is still struggling with the problem of learning outcomes, since the average level of skill acquisition in the region remains rather low in both absolute and relative terms. School enrolment does not automatically translate into securing goals it aims to achieve. Schooling is only meaningful when it enables students to lead fuller lives, both as individuals and as labour market participants.
The abovementioned World Bank report takes into account the state of education from primary until the upper secondary school level across South Asian countries in order to provide suggestions for improving learning outcomes. It rightly points out the need for improving quality of teaching, which has the most important impact on the quality of student learning.
There are numerous problems plaguing the quality of teachers in our own country, which merit more attention. Many of our schoolteachers themselves are not competent to teach the curriculum. Recent surveys in the country have shown that teachers themselves perform poorly in math and language tests based on the primary school curriculum.
Teacher training programmes tend to be short, and opportunities for practice teaching before acquiring a teaching degree are virtually non-existent. In-service training programmes are also brief. Since participation in training rarely affects career development, teachers attach little value to it.
Another study found around 11 per cent of the teachers in rural Punjab to be absent on any given day. Such a high rate of teacher absenteeism presents another fundamental barrier to student learning. This phenomenon also exacerbates the existing disparities in education, given that schools with more low-income and poorly performing students also tend to suffer from higher rates of teacher absenteeism.
Patronage-based recruitment remains a long-standing problem due to which teacher performance continues to be problematic. Predictably, however, the World Bank adopts an overtly economic perspective, rather than a pedagogical approach, to dealing with these issues. It suggests increasing efficiency by introducing performance-related teacher pays and promotions, which could be problematic and make education more exclusionary, since students having difficulties with education would be ignored by teachers and schools aiming to show good results.
Another tested World Bank suggestion for improving student learning outcomes is emphasis on partnerships with the private sector, which offers limited prospects in terms of providing education to all. Disadvantaged children need additional resources to overcome the existing disparities in education, which private sector education providers cannot deliver. The quality of education provided by low-income private schools in our country also remains lucklustre.
Our education policymakers have to acknowledge and address the lingering capacity, and management and financial constraints, which are plaguing our public education sector. They must also take World Bank prescriptions for improving educational outcomes with a pinch of salt. There are no magic solutions based on undue confidence in market-based efficiencies, which guarantee a decent standard of education for all citizens of developing countries, including those in South Asia.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2014.
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