Fight against illiteracy: an uphill task

By Nafisa Hoodbhoy and Zubeida Mustafa

“Bina parhayjo waqt gunwaya”, the powerful TV jingle, came to mind as we walked one after-‘ noon through a long dusty corridor of a government school in Korangi. We (were on a surprise visit to one of the Nai Roshni schools.

Going up a flight of stairs in the school building, we came upon a classroom without window panes. Seated on dusty wooden benches, with books open before them on rickety desks .were 24 boys in dishevelled shalwar-kameez and chappals. They listened intently as their young bearded teacher taught numerals on the blackboard with almost religious devotion.

This was a maths class in progress at the Nai Roshni school. After the teacher had finished he called upon one of the children to come and recite the tables. The boy did so with great zeal in a sing-song tone and the class repeated the lesson after him. Even when the child made a mistake the class did not falter. It was the teacher who would intervene. Obviously the emphasis was on the rote method so common in the schools here.

Uphill-31-17-07-1987-3But the Nai Roshni school is not a part of the school system. The Literacy and Mass Education Commission’s latest experiment in literacy, this school is designed to teach the three R’s to post-primary age children (11-14 years) who did not go to school or dropped out to lapse into illiteracy. The idea is to prepare the older children (some adults have also been admitted) for secondary schooling by giving them a two-year crash course.

To save time and capital investment, classrooms in the existing school buildings are being used after school hours. Where school premises are not available, LAMEC takes a room on rent. By the end of August, a total of 4,972 schools, are planned for the province.

Three thousand such schools have already been opened in Sind. Nearly 22,000 are planned for the whole country until mid-1988. LAMEC’s target is to make 1.6 million children literate by 1990 through the Nai Roshni schools. But the target might not be met. Not because these institutions are not attracting enough students. On the contrary the response has been good and in places the size of the class has been expanded to accommodate 25-30 students.

Uphill-31-17-07-1987-2The schools we visited had no signboards indicating that Nai Roshni schools were housed there. Yet students had managed to learn of their existence by word of mouth. The prospect of free admission and- free books had in one month, in the case, of the Korangi school, attracted 26 boys, 10-15 years old most of whom worked as carpenters, motor mechanics and tailoring apprentices in the morning. In fact, half an hour after the class had started, a couple of unaccompanied boys walked in requesting admission.

The convenient timings — from two to five in the afternoon — were an additional incentive. Nadeem (11) and Faheem (10), brothers, seated together said they had previously been studying in school but had had to drop out to earn for the family. Now in the Nai Roshni school they could catch up with their education, while continuing their work in the morning.


The students at the Nai Roshni school for girls had the same story to tell. Young women who had missed the bus had found an opportunity once again to study. For amongst the 30 females who sat with their heads covered at the Nai Roshni school in the Federal Government Cantonment Board School in Shah Faisal Colony, many had left their children at home to fulfil personal ambitions of becoming literate and educated.

The twenty-six-year-old Mrs Mukhtar Zulfiqar was a perfect example of someone who was excited and motivated by the Nai Roshni school. With six children of her own, the youngest eight months old and the eldest 11 years, she wanted to study so that she could teach her children herself. “Tuitions are too expensive,” she observed. She even hinted at the possibility of. finding a job after completing her education, but was not sure if she would he allowed to do something quite that daring.

The timings of the Nai Roshni school had come as a boon for Mrs Mukhtar, who was busy in the mornings with household chores but had free time in the afternoons. While she studied, the older children looked after the younger ones. She had taken admission when her husband was out of the city, and now she. hoped to persuade him to let her continue with her classes.

Fourteen-year-old Samina was a drop-out who left primary school after four years. She now aspired to complete the two-year course of the Nai Roshni school to go on to join class VI and then become a teacher. Her father had himself brought her here for admission.

With so much enthusiasm among the pupils the delay in launching the Nai Roshni schools appears intriguing. They were announced in September 1986 and have become functional only since April. Mr Mushtaq Ahmad Sundrani, Resident Director of LAMEC, explains that the major factor for the delay was the difficulty encountered in appointing the staff. For the 5,000 posts of teachers and supervisors in Sind, LAMEC had received 80,000 applications.

It took time to process the applications, interview the applicants and issue appointment letters. There have been other problems too. Since the central idea, of the project is community involvement, LAMEC lias looked for teachers who live in the same district as where the school is. This has created the paradox of thousands of applications for one post in one area with no applicant with the necessary qualifications (Matriculation with a second division, 18-30 years of age) for another. The problem has been most acute in the case of girl schools in rural areas. LAMEC has had to relax the eligibility requirements in many cases.

From the schools we visited we could make out that the devotion and competence of the teachers made all the difference as to how the Nai Roshni schools functioned.

The Shah Faisal Colony school teacher had a PTC and handled her job with skill and confidence. The Korangi school teacher, a 20-yearold Matriculate, had^devotion. But it was clear that the week’s training he had received in the LAMEC district office in Malir was inadequate. Mr Sundrani admitted that the training they impart to teachers is not sufficient. He feels that there is need for a training school in Sind to give at least a month’s in-service training to teachers of Nai Roshni schools. With the teachers’ role central to the success of the scheme, the practice of recruiting 30 per cent of the teachers from the nominees of the MNAs and the MPAs appears grossly incongruous. The provincial office of LAMEC seems to have no say in these appointments. Islamabad decides the cases of the MNAs’ nominees while the provincial Education Minister handles those who come with MPAs’ recommendations. LAMEC can only take satisfaction in its power to dismiss any teacher for negligence of duty, if that is proved: 150 dismissals have taken place in Sind so far.

 Key factor

The textbooks will prove to be another key factor in this seme. At the time of our visit, the boys had received only maths and Urdu books prepared by LAMEC’s Islamabad office. The integrated book on science, social studies and Islamiat has now been received.

While attractively designed, these books showed a heavy ideological content. In the Urdu book, for example, the essays are either religious, moralistic or patriotic: an essay on Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah explains how the “Madar-i-Millat” is a mother to all of us. In the maths book, the months are related with the birth dates of national leaders or Islamic festivals. Then in the contradictory style of our educational system, numerals are written in English but read in Urdu

On paper the Nai Roshni school scheme cannot be faulted. Much would of course depend on how honestly and efficiently it is operated. Mr Sundrani rightly attaches great importance to supervision. He feels the main weakness of the National Literacy Plan was that it lacked provision for effective supervision. This the Nai Roshni scheme has sought to institute through the multi-tier supervisory system and cmunity involvement.

Every supervisor will check on the working of ten schools in an area of five or so miles. It is planed that the supervisor will visit every school at least twice a week The Tehsil Literacy Inspectors and The Literacy Councils at the tehsil district and provincial levels will also be monitoring the functioning of the Nai Roshni schools.

Whether this will actually work out remains to be seen. The Federal Government Boys Secondary School, Cantonment Bazar, which we visited offered a ghost scene: classrooms were empty and there were no student or teacher. A chowkidar told us that the teacher had stopped coming a few days ago without giving any notice. After a few futile enquiries, the students had also given up in despair. We do not know if this was in the supervisor’s knowledge, for no reserve teacher had been sent to keep the school going. This highlighted the potential weakness in this scheme, especially in the rural areas where supervision will be more difficult.

Another important aspect of the Nai Roshni scheme which will in the long run.determine its success is its economics. LAMEC calculates the cost of teaching each child in the Nai Roshni school to be Rs 1,900 per year. Will the government be able to sustain this expenditure for long? A primary school student cost Rs 554 to educate in 1986-87 and this included the development expenditure,

As a short-term measure crash courses to impart literacy cannot be faulted. But the Nai Roshni schools are no substitute for the regular school system. Whatever might be said in support of capsule courses, the fact is that five years of primary schooling is indispensable for a child. It instils in him many other qualities apart from teaching him to read, write and do simple, arithmetic. It should expand his mental and intellectual horizons, develop his personality, stimulate his creativity and teach him independent thinking. Nai Roshni schools cannot be expected to achieve all this in the limited span of two years. Moreover, the second year will, to some extent, be devoted to imparting vocational training to girls and boys.

The Nai Roshni schools must be seen in the context of Pakistan’s literacy scene. Given the high rate of illiteracy in the country, any literacy campaign is a daunting task. The need is not simply that of clearing up the backlog of illiteracy, but also to cope with the ever-growing number of illiterates.

In 1972 with the literacy rate of 21.7 per cent the country had 51 million unlettered people of all ages. When the next census was taken in 1981 the literacy rate had inched up to 26.2 per cent, but the number of illiterates had jumped up to 61.8 million.

Now the Prime Minsiter’s five-point programme speaks of raising the literacy rate to 50 per cent by 1990. But those in the Establishment — Dr Mahbubal Haq for one and LAMEC officials for another— admit that this target will not be met. In other words the backlog will become even more formidable than before. LAMEC has so far failed to produce results. Set up in 1981 as a part of the Hijra centenary celebrations, “jihad” against ignorance, LAMEC has had five chairmen, would have till June 1988 spent Rs 900 million in five years, has tried its hand at the President’s ten points on literacy and has launched and abandoned the three-year National Literacy Plan. Now we will have to wait and see whether the Nai Roshni schools manage to make a worthwhile contribution to the struggle against illiteracy.

Source: Dawn 17 July 1987