By Zubeida Mustafa
ANY country which values education provides for an independent mechanism to test the learning levels of its students. That is the only way a state can assess objectively the strength and weaknesses of the system that it has in place to educate its children.
In Pakistan, the Annual State of Education Report (Aser) has been doing precisely that since 2008 when its first annual survey was held. It is like an audit and should be valued for the database it collects — mainly in the relatively inaccessible rural areas. Policies made on the basis of this wealth of information should make learning tools more effective.
It is a pity that our policymakers are not using Aser’s findings — distressing — to devise an appropriate education strategy suited to our indigenous needs. This is confirmed by Aser’s 2016 report which was launched earlier this week. Given the failure to register a marked improvement in the situation it is plain that the authorities are simply not interested in Aser’s reports. Had they been taking note, we would not have landed in this mess.
What does the national report card tell us? First, enrolment is stagnating. Nationally, 81 per cent of children from ages five to 16 were in school (80pc in 2015 and 79pc in 2010). Also worrying is the growing reliance on the private sector. The public schools actually showed a decline in enrolment. From 75pc (in 2015) of school-goers the enrolment in government institutes fell to 74 pc in 2016. In other words, more than a quarter of the children in school depend on non-governmental institutes to meet their educational needs.
Once again, we have dismal figures for education in the country.
And how did the students perform? Worse than before as reflected in the steady decline in academic achievement. Only 52pc of the children in Grade 5 could read a story of Grade 2 level in a local language in 2016 — down from 55pc in 2015. Similarly, tests for English reading skills for a Grade 5 child for sentences designed for Grade 2, showed only 46pc children succeeding in 2016, a considerable drop from the 49pc witnessed in 2015. In arithmetic, the corresponding figures were 48pc compared to 50pc the previous year.
The private schools did better in all three areas of studies. Wherever there was a significant rise in the enrolment in private schools the performance of the students also showed an improvement.
This makes it evident that the huge education spending in Pakistan is being squandered or embezzled. True, there is a lot of underutilisation as well. There has been a marginal improvement in the physical structure of schools, especially in the provision of water and toilets, over the years. But the number of public-sector schools without water (40pc) and toilets (46pc ) is enough to deter enrolment.
Given the persistent deterioration, one may well ask, is such a survey really needed. I would still stand by Aser. Without the data collected every year, there is no basis for planning if the authorities get serious about it.
Besides, Aser has been adding new areas to probe in its efforts to get the policymakers to address the education sector. Thus in 2016 some statistics have been gathered on the households’ own efforts to access communication technology and alternative cheap energy such as cell phones (69pc), laptops (17pc) and solar panels (20pc). Additionally, the high voters’ registration has created political space for the people. Though a clear link between these enabling facilities and enhancement of learning levels has not been established by Aser, the report should provoke some rethinking on education in the country.
Baela Raza Jamil, who is the founder of Aser (Pakistan), sees these private efforts as choices that people have exercised to improve the quality of their lives, offset poverty and enable themselves politically. She suggests that it needs to be explored “if this offers possibilities to influence and extend learning opportunities more optimally to households directly”.
This would call for a basic redefinition of the goals of education. Personally, I feel that this rethinking has long been due. But at no cost should the basic goal of education, namely to teach a person critical thinking, be abandoned. This is important if democracy is to be meaningful.
Aser’s critics insist that the money spent on this information-gathering exercise could, instead, have been spent on improving education itself. They should understand that no individual or NGO can educate millions of children that the government with its huge resources is supposed to do. With the exception of the upscale private schools, even the average private schools are restrained by the irrational guidelines laid down by policymakers. This approach, above all, breeds inequity.
Thus Aser is in essence a push for educational and pedagogical reforms on behalf of the most disadvantaged. The director, Global Education Monitoring (Unesco), perceives it as having the potential of becoming a social accountability lever to improve education.