Identifying needs of education

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AFTER politics and the economy, the subject that is being frequently discussed today in the media is education. One should welcome this positive development since public debates will enhance awareness about the needs and problems of this sector and thus generate pressure for reform.

The federal education minister, Lieutenant General (retd) Javed Ashraf Qazi, has been quite vocal on this score in a bid to establish the credibility of his policies. A few days ago he appeared in a PTV talk show. Earlier he gave a comprehensive interview to CRI’s newsletter.

As could have been expected, Mr Qazi had many good things to say about his achievements as the education minister. One would not dispute the merit of some of them though it is too early to say whether they will be sustained. One also wonders if these policy measures will not be misused.

For instance, he claims that it was his idea – though some dispute it – to institute the inter-provincial education ministers conference meeting every quarter as a forum for ministers to exchange views on various issues to learn from one another’s experience.

Again the school census that was held last year under General Qazi is also to be commended as an excellent move to ascertain the realities on the ground – which are incidentally bleaker than what the Pakistan Economic Survey has been claiming all along. How frequently will this census be held – that is if it is held again – will establish its permanent utility.

Another significant measure General Qazi announced was that the scheme of studies had been revised. Irrelevant subjects had been discarded, important subjects such as history and geography had been introduced, and there was to be no repetition and duplication of material in the textbooks. These are welcome measures. But conclusive comments will have to wait until the textbooks incorporating the proposed revisions are actually published.

But what is saddening is that the federal education minister’s observations betray a gross lack of understanding of the needs and problems of the common man.

For example, in the TV programme General Qazi remarked that government schools are losing enrolment because people want their children to learn English and so they send them to private schools. The public sector schools teach in Urdu so they are falling out of favour.

He also promised to end the class system (‘tabqati nizam’, is the term he used) that operates in education by making all schools dual medium. He also went on to say that English will be taught from class I and it needed no special skills for a teacher to teach “ABC” (the English alphabet) to a child who had just entered school.

Unfortunately, this is not a correct assessment of what ails our education sector. We know very well that the enrolment in government schools is falling not so much because of their medium of instruction policy but because they are malfunctioning, their standards are dismal, the teachers are perennially absent and there is no accountability

or monitoring of their performance.

The parents who send their children to school want them to learn something that is relevant to their lives and become more productive citizens and better human beings.It is the failure of the public sector schools in this context that has disappointed parents.

More importantly, a common lament is that parents have no way of holding the school management accountable and registering their dissatisfaction at the teachers’ performance. The private schools – even the modest ones in the katchi abadis – are more responsive to the parents’ complaints and give them a hearing.

One can hardly attribute the parental dissatisfaction to the government schools’ failure to teach their children English. The private schools hardly do any better in terms of teaching English irrespective of their claims.

As for the social stratification the federal minister wants to abolish, he will have to look deeper into the matter than the superficial observation he made. The factors responsible for this divide are to a large extent economic, social and the fact that the entire administrative, judicial and economic system is biased in favour of those who read, write and speak good English that gives a select elite a degree of empowerment and excludes the others from the corridors of power.

As long as wealth is unequally distributed and profound economic disparities persist it is unlikely that class barriers will be eliminated by simply teaching the poor man’s children some half baked English. Moreover, adopting an ill-considered medium policy will ensure that the government school children will lose out in many ways.

They will never be able to understand what they are being taught ensuring that their intellectual skills remain stunted. Thus they will not succeed in acquiring any upward economic or social mobility. The class divide may even worsen.

The misconception is that some crash courses in English to teachers will qualify them to teach the English language as a subject from class I and science and mathematics in English from class III.

One cannot be certain what the outcome of this experiment will be. Given the poor knowledge of science and English language skills of the teachers, will they ever be able to give a child comprehension of various scientific concepts in an unfamiliar language and enough proficiency in this foreign tongue to be able to communicate in it? Will this make him fit to compete in the globalised world of today – the supposed aim of our language policy?

Another example of our policymakers’ lack of understanding of the problems is the education minister’s insistence that in due course he plans to standardise the academic calendar, the textbooks and the examinations all over the country. Nothing could be more damaging.

This unnatural uniformity born of the military’s regimentation mindset will not be good for a society whose diversity is its wealth.

Moreover, natural elements such as geography, climate and physical needs of the various regions of the country demand a localised approach.

The Indus Resource Centre’s schools in Khairpur and Sehwan have tailored their school terms to the harvesting seasons when entire families move away from home and children cannot attend classes. And this approach has actually worked very well.