When it comes to education in Pakistan, the word ‘good news’ is not what comes to mind immediately. The recent plagiarism scandals, dubious qualifications of a senior administrator at COMSATS and an unclear position on whether the Higher Education Commission (HEC) is a watchdog, an institute to set national policy or a grant-awarding agency, continue to cast dark and long shadows of doubt on the future of education in the country. The stories of ghost schools, declining quality and growing intolerance through our curriculum (as has been articulated in her recent work by Dr Madiha Afzal) is also a cause for deep concern.
In this environment of dark realities, something quite different happened last month. The government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) made it a priority to recognise teachers across the province for their dedication, commitment and hard work. There is little doubt that teachers are the frontline foot soldiers of our development and the custodians of future, but it is extremely rare that a government formally recognises their effort through financial support, cash prizes and recognition at the government level. Nearly 1,000 principals and teachers were recognised at a ceremony in Peshawar on September 11 and upwards of Rs50 million were distributed in cash prizes.
While this particular news got buried on the back pages, under piles of political posturing and the same old stories of empty rhetoric between us and our neighbours, this development is particularly important for several reasons. First, we have to strengthen the backbone of our national education system. We have to recognise the role our teachers play, sometimes literally in the line of fire, to educate our future. The quote from one headmistress, Anwar Sultana, is particularly heartbreaking. She noted that in her 27-year-long career “there has never been any acknowledgement or appreciation; not even a letter from any government”. There is little mystery as to why our most gifted students never even imagine themselves as teachers of the future. Apart from the financial compensation, a career with no growth, recognition or opportunity to excel prevents even the best of minds from seriously considering teaching as a profession. If we want to continue to attract top quality teachers to the profession, we have to recognise their efforts. The government of K-P’s efforts in this regard are both urgently needed and highly commendable. I would hope that other governments will follow suit and create similar initiatives, and for the sake of our future, ignore which party came up with the idea.
Second, the fact that the news is coming from K-P is particularly heartening. K-P has not only had to tackle a tough climate of deadly extremist elements from outside the government, it has serious issues to sort within its own ranks of administration. Issues of curriculum reform, where the Jamaat-e-Islami’s vision of education is at odds with those of previous governments and education boards has affected textbooks and the presentation of key elements of our history and heritage. This tension is particularly acute in K-P. In this difficult environment, focusing on teachers and supporting them in their noble endeavour is highly valuable.
Third, we have somehow assumed that any discussion, debate or recognition in education starts and ends with students. The bulk of the effort, whether in the laptop schemes or when it comes to attracting media attention, continues to focus on students with little effort expended on appreciating those who enable students to reach their potential. The recent K-P initiative changes this narrative and brings necessary balance to the fore.
While I have not always agreed with the PTI’s policies in K-P or elsewhere, I am reminded that it was the first party to come up with a clear education policy. As we noted a couple of years ago, while far from perfect, it was a bold and a brilliant step and forced other parties to take education seriously (http://tribune.com.pk/story/514346/debating-education-policy/). In the frenzy of dharnas and other mayhem, a lot has been lost. But not everything. The sparks of right priorities are still there. The winds of commitment can convert these sparks into flames of inspiration and prosperity. The party, province and the country cannot afford to let these sparks fade away.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2015.