Pakistan’s literacy rate is currently 57 per cent. This is lower than the literacy rates of Bangladesh and India. The rate is currently rising by less than one percentage point per annum. At this rate, it will take more than four decades for Pakistan to achieve near full literacy for its population aged 10 years and above. Behind the low literacy rate is the crisis in primary education. The net enrolment rate of children aged five to nine years stands at only 57 per cent. This figure has shown little increase over the last five years. Added to this is the fact that around 25 million children are out of school.
One of the less-documented developments in the Pakistani education sector is the move away from government schools. According to a World Bank report, almost one-third of children are in private schools and the numbers enrolled in government schools is falling rapidly, especially in the urban areas. This is not surprising, given the low quality of public education. Government schools are poorly endowed with basic facilities. According to the Pakistan Education Atlas 2013, around 60 per cent of primary schools do not have electricity, 36 per cent no drinking facility, 42 per cent no washrooms and 30 per cent have only one teacher. There is a high level of absenteeism among teachers and teaching materials are seldom available.
We must remind ourselves of the high priority attached to education in our Constitution. Article 25-A recognises the right to education as a fundamental right. Currently, Pakistan devotes only 2.1 per cent of its GDP to education. About 38 per cent of the expenditure is on primary education. Bulk of the expenditure is borne by provincial governments. The large increase in transfers to these governments in the 7th NFC Award has not translated into a corresponding increase in expenditure on education. The predominant component of the increase that has taken place is in teachers’ salaries and allowances and not in the number of schools or teachers.
The time has come to declare an education emergency, especially for primary and secondary education. Several steps will have to be taken on a priority basis. First, the education budget has to be increased substantially. The manifesto of the government targets raising the level of education spending to four per cent of GDP in its tenure. As such, the annual increase should be at least 0.5 per cent of GDP.
Second, the priority must be to improve the quality of primary education. Teacher training has not been adequately focused on. There are 189 training institutions for teachers in the country, with only a few offering B.Ed (Hons.) degrees. The share of education expenditure devoted to teacher training is only 1.8 per cent. This should be increased to five per cent. Also, a regulatory mechanism needs to be developed to ensure quality in private schools. In addition, emphasis should be placed on the provision of missing facilities to schools and improving the teacher-student ratio in existing schools. New schools should primarily be built for girls, so that the gap with respect to boys in primary enrolment of 13 per cent currently is narrowed.
On the governance side, the management of primary schools must be decentralised and brought under local governments. Parent-teacher committees can be established in each school to monitor attendance of teachers and the quality of teaching. The current legislation on local governments will need to be modified to ensure that the responsibility of managing schools is transferred to them after the local council elections. This is the case in most countries.
In addition, some innovative steps need to be undertaken. Rising poverty in recent years has compelled many parents not to send their children to school or to withdraw them from school. The Benazir Income Support Programme could be converted into a conditional cash transfer scheme. The monthly amount may be augmented if a recipient family sends its child, especially the girl child, to school. The Punjab Education Foundation has experimented successfully with an education vouchers scheme. This may be replicated by other provinces. The objective of making our country a progressive, democratic state, with a dynamic economy, will not be achieved unless the people are educated and enjoy a good quality of life.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2015.