Creating hope for education

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE challenge of providing education to each and every child in Pakistan is so enormous that it is difficult to be hopeful about achieving the Dakar Education Forum’s target of education for all and the millennium development goals that seek to have every child enrolled in school by the year 2015.

More disturbing is the fact that the government, whose responsibility it is to ensure universal primary education, has virtually abdicated its role.

Having contrived the concept of public-private partnership, our rulers have left it to the private sector, mainly in the form of entrepreneurs, NGOs, CBOs and civil society organizations, to fill the vacuum so created.

It is said that nearly a third of the children who are attending school in Pakistan today are in private sector institutions. The measure of inaccessibility may be gauged from the fact that according to The State of the World’s Children Report, 2006, the net primary school enrolment ratio is 56 per cent. The drop-out rate is acknowledged officially to be 50 per cent. That would explain the low literacy rate in the country — it is said to be 49 per cent though the government claims a higher figure. It is not just the question of reaching out to the children that has to be addressed but also the issue of quality that must be taken into account.

This massive backlog of illiteracy and low school enrolment has built up over the years. The fact of the matter is that no government in power has cared enough about the education sector to do much about it. Against this backdrop one wonders how much impact can NGOs have? Recognizing the enormity of the task, five organizations — Alif Laila Book Bus Society, Democratic Commission for Human Development, Female Education Trust, Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, Sudhaar and the Sindh Education Foundation — came together under the umbrella of the Alliance for Education Development to convene a conference in Lahore last week. Titled ‘Local Governance Texts and Contexts: Perspectives from South Asia’, the moot brought together educationists, thinkers, activists and professionals from across the region to foster a learning and sharing experience.

In a hopeless situation they decided to follow Albert Camus’ counsel, “When there is no hope, one must create hope.” The Lahore conference was designed to be the first step towards setting up a South Asian body for education, which is not anything out of the ordinary considering the fact that there are a number of professional regional bodies that are operating in South Asia. The physicians and surgeons have theirs. The lawyers have theirs and journalists also have one which publishes a journal.

The South Asia Forum for Education Development (Safed) will be designed to build partnerships for learning, promote sharing of experiences and successful strategies, build capacities of ministries and civil society organizations to develop, manage and implement education policies, build linkages, create a data base, and accelerate the implementation of nationally-driven policies.

All this sounds too good, to be true. The conference organizers were so serious and committed about their mission that Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, the convenor, promised to start right away by putting up a website to invite ideas and propositions. Will Safed be able to forge ahead where others have failed? The idea of sharing methodology, research and expertise holds great appeal. But when it actually comes to implementing the policies agreed upon, each country will have to fend for itself. Won’t that leave us in the same morass in which we find ourselves today?

The first hurdle to be crossed might prove to be the government itself which is to be inducted into Safed along with civil society organizations — something unusual and probably the first experiment of its kind. In fact, a representative from the ministry of education would be on the steering committee. If this exercise creates the political will to promote universal education in Pakistan in the powers that be one would welcome the official representation.

If anything the cooperation of the government is vital to making any initiative in the education sector successful. After all, the government is still the owner of the majority of schools in Pakistan, is the employer of large numbers of teachers. Nearly two thirds of school children study in government institutions. But what makes one so pessimistic is the government’s record of the past 50 years.

The key problem of the education sector in Pakistan is the need to universalize primary education. But that is not the only issue. There are other aspects as well and all of them are interrelated. In other words, all the issues have to be addressed simultaneously. Dr Krishna Kumar, director National Council of Educational Research and Training, India, succinctly termed them as the four riddles, namely, relevance, teaching methodology, goal and reform strategy. According to him, education has to be flexible if it is to move away from the “one size fits all” pattern, which in effect becomes a “mechanism for exclusion”.

Only flexibility can meet the diverse needs of the people. Pedagogy must recognize and respect the wealth of local knowledge and vocabulary the child has already acquired by the age of five when he starts school. The aim of education should not just be to give a child information but also to create awareness in him. Finally, it has to be determined how reform is to be introduced given the entrenched attitudes and lack of public faith in long-term sustained and staggered reforms.

Safed will be expected to find feasible solutions to these riddles. Even if it manages to find them, implementation would be the next challenge. It would depend entirely on a number of factors. The main one would revolve around who the financiers of this project would be and whether they would agree with the goals of education formulated by Safed.

The draft terms of reference discussed at the meeting in Lahore spoke of a consortium of development partners financing the forum. The names mentioned were development NGOs, the corporate sector, the Commonwealth Education Fund and the Commonwealth Secretariat. Donors are known for their propensity to guide a project in the direction they want to take it in. Would all of them be supportive of the kind of awareness Dr Krishna Kumar wants education to create? Would the corporate sector want to fund education that teaches the children of their workers all about human rights and labour rights?