Keeping an eye on schools

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

JUNE is the month for financial stocktaking in Pakistan. It is also a time when the term “human resource” — plainly put, the people — finds eloquent mention by policy makers, who all of a sudden discover the merit of an educated and trained manpower for the national economy. In this scenario a new trend has emerged of late. The government has begun to openly concede its failure in the education sector.

The Economic Survey 2001-2002 lays bare all the facts and figures pertaining to our poor performance in the field of education. This has been done very unabashedly and what better yardstick would there be than the literacy rate. In the last 11 years since 1991, the literacy rate has grown from 34.9 per cent to 50.5 per cent, so it is officially claimed.

In other words the growth rate of literacy every year has been on an average 1.4 per cent when the population has increased by 2.16 per cent per annum. The number of illiterates in Pakistan has been growing, and this is confirmed by the measly primary school enrolment rate in the country. At 65 per cent, it is lower than that of Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.

How does the government in Islamabad analyze the factors responsible for this abject failure? Although it is conceded that literacy and education alone can take the country on the path of economic progress, it is not clear how this is going to be done. A knee-jerk reaction was to promulgate an ordinance making primary education compulsory and stipulating a fine on parents whose wards in the 5-9 year age group are not enrolled in a school. This is not the first time such a measure has been announced. Primary education has been made compulsory umpteen times and it has lost all credibility.

The Sindh government realizing how this can backfire decided to select one town in every district for a pilot scheme. On paper, its plan to begin on a modest scale was ideal. It could then move to the rest of the towns by 2004, the deadline for universal elementary education. But this scheme is still in the air more than three months after it was launched with much fanfare. The community organizations in Lyari, which work at the grassroots, know nothing about it. Lyari is the town in the District South of Karachi, which has been chosen to spearhead the enrolment drive,

The fact is that the loud boast of Education Sector Reforms (ESR) notwithstanding, the government is not very clear about how it wants to proceed in this matter. Confusion reigns supreme. There is lack of communication and coordination between the various sectors involved in educating the people.

Take a few examples. On the one hand, it is clearly conceded that primary education constitutes the foundation of the entire system. Yet the focus appears to be on the universities. In one year the number of universities more than doubled from 26 in 2000-2001 to 68 now.

This was done by liberally handing down charters to various institutions of higher education and encouraging the private sector to expand in a big way. As a result there are now 28 private universities in Pakistan. A task force for higher education has also been set up and is now working on the recommendations for restructuring the universities.

Had this been a part of an over-all and balanced restructuring of the education system, it would have made some sense. What comes as a cause of concern is that this emphasis on university education appears to be at the expense of primary education.

The same year that the number of universities shot up 160 per cent, the number of primary schools registered an increase of only three per cent.

Only 4,000 or so new primary schools were opened in 2001-2002. All this makes one wonder if the investment in universities is not a waste of resources. With the academic standards of the school students falling so drastically, it is inevitable that they will pull down the quality of university education as well.

It is the schools which really need to be looked into on a priority basis. The government has finally conceded a role for the private sector in education, though it has yet to be clearly defined. The high-profile presence of the private sector in education in the urban areas has had the effect of blowing out of proportion the share it has in school education. The census of private educational institutions conducted by the Federal Bureau of Statistics has made it possible to assess the situation on the ground in respect of the private sector educational institutions.

There is no denying that many of the private schools (especially the so-called elite ones) are providing quality education to Pakistani children. There are nearly 15,000 primary schools in the country (10 per cent of the total) which are privately-owned.and they have about 4.5 million students on their rolls (22.5 per cent of the primary school enrolment).

These schools are staffed with 22 per cent of the total strength of primary level teachers. The private sector spent about 19 per cent of the total education budget in Pakistan in 1999-2000 – of course all of it was recovered as tuition fees from the students).

All this data which is now documented helps explode the myths which have been perpetuated about the private sector schools:

* The public sector’s role in education is no longer so important

* The private sector spends much more than the government on education

* All the government schools are overcrowded

* The teacher-pupil ratio is better in private schools

With all these elements being equal, one may well ask: why is it that the academic standards in the private sector institutions is infinitely better than in the public sector schools? Why has enrolment in the government schools been falling for the past few years? The key factor that has made all the difference is school performance. It is now admitted that dropouts in government schools have increased because parents are discerning and withdraw their children when they feel that education is not productive. Poverty has also been described as a major factor in the parents’ decision not to send their child to school.

But now people working at the grassroots confirm that parents want to educate their children when they feel assured that education will in the long run facilitate poverty alleviation. They don’t send their offspring to school when they find that the teachers are missing and when the teachers are there the books and courses are found to be quite irrelevant to their future quest for a livelihood.

It is school performance which needs to be urgently addressed. Corruption (in the form of absenteeism and ghost schools), lack of motivation, apathy and the absence of teaching skills and good books have reduced public sector education to the state of decay we find it in. The need is to focus on monitoring and mobilization so that optimum use is made of the available resources. Some efforts have been made in that direction.

The Sindh Education Foundation launched its adopt-a-school scheme a few years ago. It has also encouraged community participation by establishing community schools. In one case the Sindh government has allowed an NGO in Karachi to actually manage a government school. These experiments have produced mixed results. They have, however, palpably demonstrated the positive impact truly committed citizens can create by being personally involved in education.

Now that the National Reconstruction Bureau has in its ultimate wisdom decided on the devolution scheme which has placed the administration of the government primary schools under the nazims in each district, theoretically it should make it possible to rescue the missing element of monitoring and re-introduce it in the school system. But how this will work out in practice is still too early to say.

Given our anti-education culture, it is not surprising that not all nazims are deeply committed to the cause of promoting education in the area under their jurisdiction. Where the nazims are interested, they often encounter financial constraints. The provincial government’s record of passing on the budgetary allocations to the local bodies has not been unimpeachable. After the new system was introduced in August, there has been a hue and cry about teachers not being paid their salary. Finally, much would also depend on the degree of politicization that is allowed to take place. If the primary education sector falls a prey to politics, devolution may prove to be a major disaster.