Original draft of the piece for Jinnah Institute. Post-editing version available here as “The Education Landscape – Bridging Gaps”. Putting up some of the pictures we considered using – some from the personal archives, others from flickr. It’s always so difficult to choose – and we never agree.
2011 was meant to be the “Year of Education” for Pakistan. Drawing upon Article 25A of the 18th Amendment, which promises “free” and “compulsory” education to all children between the ages of 5 and 16, the Pakistan Education Taskforce added a strain of urgency to previously lulled discourse about a development priority. International donors, too, came to recognize the benefits of investing in the social sector; Pakistan is now the largest overseas recipient of UK aid, with 650 million pounds being pumped into improving schools.
In terms of creating an enabling environment for progress, Article 25A was an important milestone. The value of basic literacy and numeracy are beyond dispute – every child deserves to be able to read, and to ensure that he or she is not shortchanged in life. While it is a first step, the simple recognition of this right is not enough. Beyond rhetoric and legislation lie the trials of implementation. As in many other developing countries, the challenges of the education sector can be defined in terms of access, equity and quality.
Universal access to basic education has been an elusive Millenium Development Goal for Pakistan. At present, it is ranked second in the world when it comes to out-of-school children – there are more than seven million who should be enrolled at the primary level, while overall estimates for school-age children range between 17 and 20 million. Even after initial enrolment, retention and completion rates fall drastically beyond the primary classes. It’s important to be thinking of why this is happening – whether it is because of an actual lack of accessible services, or whether these children are forced to make an early decision between books and labour.
The socioeconomic conditions that determine these decisions also enter into concerns about equity in access to services. There is no unified system in Pakistan, and huge disparities exist in the kind of education available to different target groups. Gender, income and geography all have a role; girls and the rural poor are at a particular disadvantage, and research also suggests that children in different provinces have unequal access to opportunities. To some extent, the private sector has stepped in to fulfill growing demand where there is a vacuum in government services. According to official statistics, 36% of children attend private primary schools.
One reason for this is also that private institutions are increasingly perceived as providers of better quality services. More than one research project has proven that learning outcomes for private school students are higher than for their peers in government schools. At the same time, private schools cannot be held as a panacea to the quality dilemma; at a national level learning achievements are low across the board, with only about 40% of children in Class Three being able to read a sentence.
In order to come up with practical solutions that can be taken to scale, it is important to develop an understanding of the educational landscape in Pakistan. This is characterized by a range of stakeholders of varying size and import. The non-government sector itself is fragmented into diverse organizations, promoting different models as “sustainable” ideas for change. However, the fact remains that even if the non-government organizations and commercial private institutions now occupy a respectable amount of space, the state is still the biggest and most powerful stakeholder here. Government infrastructure exists where no private organizations can penetrate, even in the remote reaches of FATA. It then becomes a question of populating these whitewashed buildings with reliable teachers, having the capacity to facilitate real learning.
In an ideal situation, the resources and outreach of the government should be combined with the quality controls and accountability mechanisms of the private sector. The gaps that exist in the national education landscape today could be filled by better coordination between various actors – whether they are working for research organizations; advocacy groups; international, local or community-based NGOs; provincial ministries; or the central government. This is not impossible to achieve – in Bangladesh, for instance, international organizations work closely with the government to achieve national objectives. There is a clearly defined long-term strategy for advancing education, and all stakeholders are involved; the government has even subsidized some parts of private schooling. Through a network of consortiums, our developing South Asian neighbor has achieved 93% net enrolment at the primary level and nearly complete gender parity in primary and secondary schools.
Even while the problems of access and equity are being addressed, there needs to be conscious emphasis on strengthening quality. Each province needs to be considered in its unique context, so provincial governments will have to adopt a proactive role in implementing Article 25A. At the same time, a standard system of capacity building can be implemented, with established benchmarks for assessing performance. The gulf between English and Urdu medium schools needs to be bridged as far as possible, through the introduction of improved curricula.
To try and achieve the Millenium Development Goal in a single “Year of Education” would have been too ambitious a target. However, what was accomplished during 2011 was the sensitization of a nation to the seriousness of the issues in the education sector, and their long-term implications. Now that the international development community has also been roused to action and resources have been mobilized there is, more than ever, a need to knit together efforts being undertaken in the private and public spheres. Now is the time to formulate a shared vision and set time-bound goals for all stakeholders to work towards, in a decade dedicated to realizing potential. After all, we owe it to our children.