By Zubeida Mustafa
THE new year has brought with it the report card on education in Pakistan that ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) has been issuing without fail since 2009. It is disappointing that the situation in the education sector remains as dismal as ever.
Last week, ASER again had bad news for the nation when it launched its annual report. The latter was based on tests given to 249,832 children in 138 rural districts. A few urban areas were also surveyed.
Today, when Article 25-A of the Constitution is in place making education free and compulsory for all those from six to 16 years of age, it is a tragedy that 21pc of Pakistan’s rural children are still not enrolled in school. While that is a sad reflection on the missing political commitment to education in various provincial governments, one cannot turn a blind eye to other factors.
Take, for instance, the gross misappropriation of funds in the education sector that is said to have emerged as the most lucrative area of national life. With teaching jobs being treated as a spoils system to reward loyalists, merit has been thrown to the winds. This shows in the apathy of the teachers and their inability to teach the children whose future is entrusted to them.
As a result, we get telling statements such as these from ASER: “Student competencies in learning English, arithmetic and language are deplorable. Half of the children from Class V cannot read Class II level text in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto. In English, only 43pc of the surveyed Class V students could read sentences which should ideally be read by students of the second grade. Compared to the last year, the learning levels in English have deteriorated by 5pc. A similar trend has been observed in the arithmetic capabilities of children where only 43pc of Class V children were able to do a two-digit division, something that is expected in the second grade curriculum.”
Can you blame the children? Not really.
ASER has been doing the job that governments are themselves doing in countries with a well-developed education system. This entails testing students’ knowledge and ability independently to determine the success or otherwise of an education strategy.
In the absence of such an institutionalised system in Pakistan, ASER’s efforts are laudable, especially for their consistency. Previous experiments — NEAS (National Education Assessment System) and LEAPS (Learning and Educational Achievement in Punjab Schools) — were limited in scope and short-lived. They ceased to be when funds dried up.
One would have expected the education authorities to pick up from where ASER leaves off. That is, the government must seek to rectify the flaws that ASER identifies. This is not being done and it is little wonder that there has been no visible improvement in the results over the years.
What emerges clearly from the ASER surveys is that teachers and classroom management need to be spruced up. The conventional wisdom was that teachers cannot give their best without their socio-economic status being enhanced. But today school teachers in government schools, who are at the root of the problem, are drawing handsome salaries. ASER also establishes that the public sector has more teachers with higher qualifications.
Then why are they not making an impact? The missing element appears to be motivation. According to ASER, the private schools are performing better. The teachers there are better motivated because they are given the recognition and appreciation that serve to encourage them. There is also the accountability sword hanging over their heads.
A significant finding of the ASER survey is the uniformly higher performance of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan which were administered as a part of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir only a few decades ago.
The enrolment rates of the six- to 16-year-olds in these territories is higher (AJK 94.8pc and GB 84.3pc) than the national average of 78.9pc. These differences in the data for AJK and GB are remarkable. Compared to the 2.6pc enrolment in madressahs at the national level, AJK has only 0.9pc and GB 1pc students in madressahs — indicating a more progressive mindset.
The learning level of children in Class V is relatively higher in the two territories as ASER reports show. Nationally in the rural areas 49.8pc Class V students can read a story in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto. In AJK 61.4pc and in GB 51.1pc can do so. Similarly these children outperform in English and arithmetic with the gap being as much as seven percentage points.
Our policymakers could learn something from the AJK and GB examples. What makes the general socio-economic and political conditions of these areas different from ours that they perform better in the education sector? In fact, ASER has pointed out that there has actually been some improvement in certain sectors in AJK and GB over 2012. If they can do it, then why not the others?