Jul 31, 2009

Education reforms

By Dr Masooda Bano

With the present government having first stayed embroiled in dealing with the judicial crisis and later with fighting the threats of the Taliban, the mainstream development reforms have largely been ignored. The education sector, which is critical for any brining any meaningful change, is yet to receive any attention. The donor aid commitments to the education sector in Pakistan have increased from as little as $14.51 million in 1999 to $316 million in 2007. However, it is difficult to see any significant change on the ground. Pakistani children whose parents cannot afford schools remain faced with the dual challenge of inaccessibility of schools as well as poor quality of education. There is a myth that Pakistani parents from conservative families are not keen to send their girls to school. However, in a recent round of field visits to schools in many areas, it was interesting though also saddening to see the high levels of unmet demand for education for girls even in apparently conservative communities. One does not have to go as far as the tribal belt or the Cholistan desert, even in such central places as outskirts of Sheikhupura there were communities where the mothers were desperately requesting the government agencies to extend the existing primary government school to secondary level as otherwise the girls had no option for further education, but there was no positive response. Some of the families had gone to the extent of hiring a teacher to teach the girls who have completed primary in a room in one of the houses. However, as the mothers very convincingly argued, this arrangement did not guarantee the girls a reliable access to middle or secondary level education nor did it provide the girls the grooming that comes by being part of a formal education system. These communities were actively lobbying the relevant government authorities to secure the upgrading of their schools. They also had the support of a prominent NGO. However, the support had not arrived to date. This was not just one case but even in limited fieldwork one is repeatedly confronted in Pakistan with a desperate demand on the part of the poor and low-middle income communities to educate their children but the state is failing to respond to it. The schools either do not exist or the quality of education being imparted is so poor that the children hardly learn anything meaningful in schools. The government in general, as noted by an official in Punjab, has even adopted a policy to not to establish new schools. It is only considering requests for upgrading a selected number of primary and middle schools each year. For a country, with a two percent population growth rate, this means that the already inadequate number of state schools is expected to cater to this rapidly expanding population. This means that the situation in future will be even dire than now. The expectations of some major donors and the government of Pakistan that the private sector schools will be the answer to the educational needs of the poor have already proven exaggerated. Many poor and low-middle income communities might be desperate to get education for their children but most of them don't have the financial resources to send their children to private schools, even if they have low fees. The challenge of education provision for all cannot be brushed aside by setting unrealistic hopes from the private sector. The state has to feel its responsibility to provide education for all. And the public should make the state accountable. The large inflows of aid to education sector since September 11 have clearly not trickled down to the Pakistani schools. At the same time, the government needs to seriously think about improving the quality of its existing schools. The main challenge within the school is good quality of teachers. However, the problem is not purely of technical nature. True, the teacher training institutes need support to train better teachers. However, the main challenge to improving quality of education in state schools is the political appointments and transfers of teachers. This problem is not linked to lack of resources; it has all to do with the political commitment of the government. Why cannot a government, if it is committed to education reforms, put in place mechanisms that ensure merit-based rather than political basis of appointment of teachers and head teachers? A lot can be done to reform the education sector only if the state showed the political will. Resources are for sure not the primary problem.

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