By Baela Raza Jamil
Nowshera: Each year it is the luck of the draw as we venture into the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey on interrogating children’s learning levels across all districts of the country -in each district a random sample of 30 villages is selected, dividing each village into four quadrants and from each 5 houses are visited for the learning survey of 3-16 year olds. ASER takes us to fascinating places across the country – enjoying our beautiful geography and even more beautiful people. Perhaps ASER is a good example of edutourism and why not? If we can have medicaltourism we can surely promote edutourism! I say so because as I entered the famous village of Ziarat Kaka Saheb in Nowshera district in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa home of a famous politician, I could not take my eyes off the beautifully constructed brick and slate walls standing impressively from centuries –the old havelis – awesome archways and well-designed drainage, reminding one of a time when this would have been a very famous place. Of course it is still famous due to two reasons; it is home to a beautiful shrine of revered sufi saint Syed Kastir Gul affectionately known as Kaka Sahib who answers many prayers and also home of a politician /religious leader the late Qazi Hussain Ahmed of Jamaat –e-Islami.
I was in Kaka Sahib and other villages of the district to see in person how ASER 2014 was being conducted- what could I learn from it? What sort of encounters would we have with mothers, grandmothers, fathers, community members and above all children. As always they all respond to the ASER experience as a communal one – a major happening in the community–everyone gathers fascinated by the test that is being taken, the side conversations with families on education and learning, why are we doing this and what changes can they expect. But this time in KP I was keen to go behind doors to also ask what they thought of the recent news of Malala’s grand Nobel Peace Prize.
It was so wonderful to hear from mothers, fathers and children alike positive comments of pride, courage and glory that the 17 year has brought to their land and to each one of them particularly young girls; as one of them said who was a year younger than Malala “ it could have been one of us! She has given us hope and courage and shown us what education is really worth” the mothers’ echoed the same sentiment in Pashto. The statement right from their guts redeemed all of us in Pakistan to honor our little hero who has grown so tall indeed but so humble at the same time.
Coming to the business of learning that ASER is supposed to measure pegged mostly at grade 2 competencies from 6-16 year olds in households, there were two alarming findings – the challenge of arithmetic and English. Sadly not having learnt from Punjab which mercifully switched this year from English medium back to Urdu medium for the first three primary grades, the KP government led by Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaaf (PTI) of Imran Khan and dharna fame, ordered from this (2014-15) academic year to switch to English medium for ALL at all levels of schooling. In Punjab, when the Chief Minister was shown the result of a teachers’ test that British council and ITA conducted (2000 teachers) from public and private schools across rural/urban areas of 18 districts of the province revealing that teachers could not cope with even the very basic level of English, a reverse decision was immediately taken. However, in KP they are going to go through the same painful route of displacing children from mother tongue twice or thrice over as they have to translate from English to Urdu to Pashto! This must be the most tortuous route to cognitive development! But policy makers and politicians love the grand pyramids of sacrifice creating spectacles of human destruction without any support for survival. Something terrible is happening in Mathematics too – grade 9 children could not cope with grade 2 level two digit subtraction, so the question of moving on to 3 digit division did not arise! All Households I visited in the 3 villages the story was repeated again and again and again. I despaired. We need to put our heads together on mathematics to see how we can train our teachers and engage with learners to create learning spaces that promote mathematical capabilities as life skills.
On more hopeful notes I saw in each village an extraordinary demand for education – the myth of parents against girls education was set aside in these distant villages – each one moaned about their girls and sometimes boys not being able to study beyond primary or 8 as there were no elementary or secondary schools in that village- some even demanded a higher secondary school for girls as secondary was not sufficient! Pakistan suffers from a huge supply gap between primary to middle and secondary schools – so where will the children go after primary? We have no more than 440 days left for our liberation from UPE or MDG 2 and thank God too, as there is evidence based research that children who study up to 10th, the impact on every indicator of learning, health, nutrition family spacing, child births , livelihoods is three or four times than that at primary level (GMR UNESCO 2014).
But was that not obvious always? Did we have to wait 25 years from Jomtien (1990) to Dakar/MDGs(200) to the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from 2015-2030? Our Right to Education or article 25 A in our constitution calls for education as a fundamental right for 5-16 year old children up to secondary plus ; legislation is awaited in KP and implementation in all Pakistan after almost four and a half years of the 18th amendment in April 2010!
Only three girls in Kaka Sahib were not going to school in the households that I visited. Two drop out girls had health problems including one who was suffering from a treatable visual impairment and the third had lost both face and faith in schooling as she had failed and refused to go to school – time had elapsed and she was sad that no one came from her school to claim her back to learning! We took cell numbers from all households to connect- I was happy to see on the speed of wifi and its availability in all villages as many skyped with their family members working in the middle east/UAE. We promised to remain in touch and try to solve their problems with promises that they will go back to learning! They all smiled with eyes twinkling and faces lit up with hope – the conversations of ASER made the October 19th 2014 Sunday so worthwhile. I was overjoyed that I could keep my promise to all ASER colleagues of writing my ASER Nama (ASER travelogue) my edutourism ramblings.
The writer is Director Program and Country Coordinator ASER Pakistan