Mar 21, 2011

As things stand

The prospects may seem grim but with political will Pakistan can reduce the yawning population-education gap

By Abbas Rashid

Failing education in Pakistan has become a chronic condition that successive governments have been unable to cure. At one level, as shown by the declaration of education as a fundamental right under the 18th constitutional amendment, the incumbent government seems firmly committed to the task of providing education to its people. Pakistan is also a signatory to the UN Millennium Declaration which aims at universal primary education.

At another level, however, as shown by the state of our falling human development indicators, the government also seems unable to make any progress in relation to its own commitment. Meanwhile, our net literacy rate, hovering at 57 per cent, has only jumped up by one percentage point. As the things stand, Pakistan is behind almost all other countries in the SAARC region in terms of literacy and public spending on education.

Education is about access of all children to quality schools, both must go hand-in-hand for an education system to work. Both are out of sync in the case of Pakistan. Despite two decades of efforts to put children in schools, over 10 million of primary school going age children are out of school and about one-third of those who enroll dropout before completing the primary cycle. Many of those who do manage to complete the primary cycle will be found lacking in literacy and numeracy, civic education and other basic competencies. This learning deficit continues into the secondary cycle. Across the spectrum, reform has almost exclusively been concerned with access. Such an unbalanced focus on access is politically attractive for governments simply because more schools mean better publicity and political capital in the short term. Ensuring quality education, however, is a difficult and painstaking enterprise often impinging on traditional mores and vested interests with results only available in the medium to long-term. But without equal emphasis on both access and quality, merely providing more schools becomes a meaningless exercise.

Education reform must aim at providing all children with an environment conducive to learning, a competent teacher, and a high quality curriculum. But while the various initiatives, including those supported by the multilateral and bilateral donors have resulted in larger classes, there have been no commensurate efforts to rationalise teacher deployment, introduce quality textbooks and reform the examination system.

With the public school system perceived as failing, the focus of reform has shifted towards private schools. These schools, especially the low-fee variety, have experienced spectacular growth and are perceived to be more efficient and cost effective as compared with the public schools. The 2007 LEAPS report, among other research, supports this claim.

However, not all is well with the private schools. The report concedes that they look better than they are simply because government schools establish such a low baseline for quality. The LEAPS report also admits to the difficulty of attracting the private sector to large regions of the country such as Balochistan, rural Sindh and southern Punjab characterised by a high incidence of poverty.

Another recent report prepared by the Pakistan Education Task Force, while lauding the performance of the private sector, notes that the, “Vast majority of school places across Pakistan will remain in the traditional public schools for the foreseeable future.”

Dianne Ravitch, a widely respected US educationist, recently attributed a shift in her views — from being a pro-market education reforms enthusiast to a strong supporter of US public schools — to lessons she learnt from Pakistan’s school education experience. Our position is that given the large numbers of student beneficiaries served by the public schools, the private sector schools should not be seen as a lifeline for the government. However, for the public sector to improve, the policy must reconsider the preparation of teachers, the quality of textbooks, and the perennial question of language of instruction.

First, whether in public or in private schools, teachers are a key ingredient of a functional education system. Pakistan has made heavy investments in teachers’ professional development. However, most of this effort is focused on pedagogical practices, which can do little to make-up the deficit in teachers’ content knowledge. The latter has to do with the state of our colleges and universities, whose degrees represent progressively less subject knowledge.

Second, while there have been some improvements in the curriculum, the quality of textbooks remains poor with little attention to critical thinking and problem solving skills. The assessment system continues to test memory recall more than any other competency. Assessment, it should be kept in mind, is the driver of teaching and learning in the classrooms.

Third, there is the issue of the language of instruction. The emphasis on English runs the risk of ignoring increasingly available evidence that the mother tongue or first language must be seen as a ‘cognitive resource,’ rather than simply one language among many. Ignoring this well-established fact has major impact on learning, overall. This is not to deny the importance of English but to argue that, along with other subjects, our students stand to learn it better in the later years if early schooling is geared to aid their cognition through the use of their mother tongue. A recent report, commissioned by the British Council, argues yet again that the first three years of primary education should take place in one of the seven local languages.

Fourthly, public expenditure on education in Pakistan has been 2 per cent of GDP or less over the last few years. This is close to the lowest in South Asia and half the minimum of 4 per cent of GDP recommended by UNESCO. Serious as this shortcoming is, as important may be the system of governance and management of the public sector that provides few incentives for outstanding performance and virtually no accountability for a dismal one. Both aspects will have to be simultaneously addressed if we are to break through the cycle of failure. On both counts, political will stands out as being critical.

Finally, in addition to the measures recommended above, Pakistan must focus on a serious attempt at quality and accessible distance education, as opposed to what the current set up is delivering. Radio and TV have to be innovatively used to that end. This can help reduce the yawning population-education gap.

As things stand, the prospects are grim. Over 50 per cent of the children of ages 5-9 (primary level) and a higher proportion of those aged 10-14 (secondary level) are out of school, according to the Population Council. By 2015, the year for assessing the achievement of MDGs, over 15 million will have never attended school. Secondary level education is even less accessible, which has serious implications for access to the labour market and its improving prospects in life. Tens of thousands of new schools will need to be built to accommodate out-of-school children and there are no signs of that taking place in the next few years.

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