The state education system in Pakistan, the government schools that a majority of children go to, has been a mess ever since I first encountered it in 1993 and has stayed a mess to a greater or lesser degree ever since. There are exceptions, and it would be misleading to say that all government schools were bad because they are not, but those that are above average are in a minority. Those children that do get educated in Pakistan and receive their education in government schools will have been taught by rote, taught not to think critically, taught from textbooks riddled not just with inaccuracies but outright lies in some instances, and will leave school largely unaware that the world even existed before the rise of Islam.
There are schools where children are physically punished and reports of teachers killing children are not uncommon. There are schools that do not exist — the infamous ‘ghosts’ that are cash-cows for whoever sets them up. Thousands of schools do not have boundary walls or latrines or on-site potable water and teacher absenteeism is chronic and debilitating wherever one looks. Provincial governments can be niggardly in their distribution of funds for education, particularly since the devolution of budgets to the provinces under the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and the picture of state education overall is shabby, neglected, underfunded and not preparing a burgeoning population of young people for the ‘knowledge economy’.
When a state educates its children to second-best standards, they become second-best citizens, lacking the skills and knowledge that would allow them to be the entrepreneurs and skilled technocrats of the future. They are educated to the ‘just about enough’ level for a jobs market where ‘just about enough’ has long been good enough but is less and less so as the world advances, leaving the children of Pakistan ever further behind.
State education is increasingly the province of the poor. There will be few middle class parents sending their children to state schools, preferring instead to send their offspring to the poorly regulated but mushrooming private sector. The education that they get there can vary from not-much-better than a government school to as-good-as-any-in-the-world… with not much in between.
It is not that poor children are any less able than those more fortunate, a truism proved by the likes of The Citizens Foundation that educates children from poor and deprived backgrounds and educates them very well. Children from the most poverty-stricken households can, given the opportunity, rise and shine — but there has to be a school that allows them to both rise and shine, and teachers who can light the spark in them.
There is a poverty of intellect and the curriculum scorns creativity. Students never think out-of-the-box because their teachers never did and neither did their teachers’ teachers, either. The social sciences are eschewed — in part because they require the acquisition of key thinking skills, a fostering of the unconventional — and those who do eventually claw their way out of the Well of Mediocrity are very much the exception.
In 2013, Pakistan ranked at 113 out of 120 countries in the Global Literacy Rate, and the Pakistan youth literacy rate is generously put at 70.7 per cent, but this includes those whose literacy does not extend beyond signing their names. This is not a recipe for success. Neither is the wholesale distribution of laptop computers when there is no power to charge them for much of the time, and anyway of little use if the family cannot afford a domestic internet connection.
Are there remedies for this parlous state of affairs? There are, and all painful to a greater or lesser degree, and all require money, a lot of money.
Teacher training has to be universal and a baseline requirement for anybody appointed as a teacher in a government school. That training needs to be delivered to a national curriculum in dedicated teacher training colleges across the country.
A secular national curriculum that is determined at the federal level and if that means howls of pain from the under-performing provinces that lack the capacity to develop one — then so be it. The Eighteenth Amendment has, in educational terms, been a complete disaster. Education budgets are underspent or poorly spent by people whose political agenda is to maintain an educational status quo rather than a flowering of the youth of the nation.
Successive governments have settled for an educational second-best, virtually since Partition, and if you invest in second-best and stick at it doggedly, be not surprised if what you get at the end of the process is — second-best. Even if the sitting government decided today to up its game educationally, and then its successors to continue the struggle for a better education, it would take a generation for Pakistan to drag itself off the bottom of the education ratings globally. Our children are the social capital of the nation in the future. Either Pakistan chooses to educate them to a point at which it can harvest their potential, or it chooses not to. And if the latter, then there is nobody else to blame but those we choose to govern us.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2014.