What of education for the poor?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AT A time when the poverty line and the number of people living below it in Pakistan are being hotly debated, there is another issue that needs to be addressed. That is the opportunity a poor person has to improve his economic and social status. Is it inevitable that a person at the bottom of the heap should be destined to remain there for many generations to come?

Unfortunately, that is how it is in this country, even though theoretically there is nothing to bar a person from striving for self-improvement and make progress. But the fact is that our society is so stratified economically that social and economic mobility is well nigh impossible for a person from the low income group. Even the power structure operates against the poor. In Europe we often hear stories of the sons and daughters of working class parents rising to become prime ministers of their country. Could one ever dream of that here?

Our class consciousness pervades the education system as well. This is our biggest misfortune because education alone can create awareness in a person and equip him with knowledge and skills to climb up the economic/social ladder. But with an education system so rigidly stratified and skewed from the primary to the university level, it is only in rare cases that a person with limited means can have access to high quality education to qualify for a lucrative job in business or a high post in the civil service.

A look at the primary education sector is quite revealing. Only 86 per cent of the children in the age group of five to nine years actually get enrolled in school. Of these 39 per cent drop out — mainly within a year. As they move on, the next whopping drop-out comes after five years when the child reaches the middle school level. In 2004-05 only 4.5 million children were in middle school (classes six to eight) as compared to the 21.3 million enrolled in the five classes that make up the primary section. Of these only 1.8 million went up to study in secondary school (classes nine and ten).

In other words the retention rate in school — that is from class I to class X — is barely 22.4 per cent. Obviously most of these fortunate ones who do not drop out of school come from the more affluent classes who are not required to join the ranks of child labour and have the family support and financial means to continue their schooling.

The accessibility to education is not the only challenge for the children of the poor. Quality is the next big hurdle. As education becomes more commercialised and the market forces come into play, the government has opted to shift the responsibility of educating the children of Pakistan to the private sector. Naturally enough, the profit-driven private schools charge higher fees which the poor cannot afford to pay. As a result they are consigned to the government institutions. Normally there should be nothing wrong in studying in public sector schools. But a visit to one will give a pretty clear idea of what awaits the child there.

If the school actually exists on the ground and not just on paper as thousands of ghost schools are known to do, and has a regular school building with toilets (unlike the 82,200 without them), drinking water (68,000 don’t have it), electricity (107,000 operate without it) and a boundary wall (82,000 lack it), he cannot be certain if there will be a teacher coming in to teach. If there is someone coming in to take the class it may be a semi-literate youngster from the village to whom the teacher may have outsourced his job for a paltry sum. Of course he himself would be collecting the pay packet every month.

For argument’s sake, let us assume that the child of a poor farmer is bright enough to benefit from the lacklustre public sector schooling described above. He would still have to depend on his luck to have a school functioning in his village. There are only 157,000 primary schools in Pakistan today and only 2,000 new ones were opened in the preceding year.

There are years when the number of schools in the country actually goes down, Thus in the year 2000-01 there was a sudden drop of 15,000 in the number of primary schools for unexplained reasons. At this rate a mathematician could calculate and let us know what is the probability of a child of poor parents being enrolled in school and then not dropping out before he has actually benefited from the education he is provided.

How will a child who is already handicapped by poverty, illiteracy in the family, lack of exposure to a mentally stimulating environment manage to learn enough to pull himself out of the quagmire of poverty? Would he ever qualify on merit to enter a university even if he is offered a lucrative scholarship? There are many other factors that militate against his progress. On account of poverty his mother will fail to provide him nourishing food and his circumstances would deprive him of clean water and sanitation.

This deprivation would combine to rob him of his health and since the government does not think it important to provide health care to the people his parents would not take him to a doctor until he is seriously ill. With disease stalking him all the time would he ever be able to attend school regularly and study with concentration? Many mineral and vitamin deficiencies would have stunted his mental development making him a slow learner who would be required to put up with physical abuse from his teacher, not very highly educated himself.

Hence, it is time our policymakers realised that number crunching will not eliminate poverty. What is their definition of the poor? Anyone who earns Rs 878 or more per head is not regarded as poor (Pakistan Economic Survey, 2005-06). Nor will economic growth that boosts the GDP ensure that every person’s income will actually rise. Even if there is an improvement in people’s purchasing power it will not be substantial enough for them to send their children to elite private schools or even the middle level schools that now charge anything between Rs 600 and Rs 1,000.

Without good education can a child ever aspire to pull himself out of the rut and improve his status? When any civilised society speaks of equality, it is equality of opportunity that it refers to. Unfortunately, this does not exist in Pakistan. How can a child deprived of good education and healthcare ever hope to compete with his compatriot who has these in abundance.

The Economist of London (June 17, 2006) defended a system in which the spoils are distributed unevenly saying, “Inequality is not inherently wrong — as long as three conditions are met: first, society as a whole is getting richer; second, there is a safety net for the poor; and third, everybody regardless of class, race, creed or sex, has an opportunity to climb up through the system.” In Pakistan’s case, inequality and poverty are morally wrong, and second and third conditions are criminally violated.