Pakistan: Walking the talk on education

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Dec 11 13:40:17 UTC 2006

COMMENT: Walking the talk on education
Abbas Rashid

 Gathering statistics in Pakistan is a tricky enterprise, but the trends
established by the UNESCO report are fairly evident and should be a cause
of major concern for the government as well as society as a whole In an
environment infested with self-congratulatory messages about progress and
achievements in the education sector in Pakistan, the UNESCO Education for
All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report provides a sharp reality check for the
government. Regardless of the rhetoric, the emphasis in education has been
on numbers both at the level of basic education as well as higher
education. But, if UNESCOs statistics are to be believed Pakistans
performance in the realm of basic education has been a disaster even in
quantitative terms.

As the Musharraf dispensation enters its 8th year, here is what the UNESCO
report has to say about the enrolment situation in the country: In terms
of the number of children of school-going age that remain out of school,
Pakistan is virtually at the bottom of the world table with 6.5 million
children out of school saved from assuming the very last spot by Nigeria
which noses ahead with 8 million children. India follows Pakistan with 4.5
million children out of school. That says a lot about the priorities of
these two South Asian nuclear powers that, taken together, contribute
hugely to providing this region with the dubious distinction of being home
to the largest number of illiterate people in the world. We need to keep
in mind, however, that India has a far larger number of children of
school-going age than Pakistan and, therefore, dismal as its record is, it
pales by comparison to that of Pakistan.

Among other things, the report suggests that low enrolment could in part
be attributed to the high incidence of poverty in Pakistan where
two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line. Amidst a clutch
of damning statistics, perhaps the most awful is the finding that over a
third of the children of under-5 years of age suffer from under-nutrition
and consequent stunting, with obvious implications for enrolment and the
ability to learn. Certainly, poverty should be seen as a key proximate
factor that impacts education. And, in this context, the regimes policies
have been of little help. Whatever improvement may have been registered
under Musharraf by way of macro-economic indicators, it has certainly not
contributed to alleviating the lot of the great majority. If anything,
these policies have led to further pauperisation of the poor and the
aggravation of the already sharp divide between the well-off few and the
many who have next to nothing.

Gathering statistics in Pakistan is a tricky enterprise, but the trends
established by the report are fairly evident and should be a cause of
major concern for the government as well as society as a whole. One
indicator of how serious a government is about any sector is the quantum
of resources allocated to it. Despite eloquent paeans about the critical
role of education in development by successive governments, the percentage
of GDP spent on education has hovered around 2-2.5 percent, at best. Now,
more than seven years after taking over, Musharraf has announced that the
allocation for education will be raised from 2.4 percent of GDP to 4
percent. When might that happen remains to be seen, but the sad fact is
that current government expenditure on education is not even 2.4 percent.

Expenditure, clearly, is a very important indicator of seriousness and
commitment on the part of the government. It is, however, only one part of
the equation. How the money is spent matters at least as much as the
amount spent, if not more. Assessments of efficiency have come to refer
more to the capacity to spend rather than the difference made. And while
there is little doubt that the education budget should be at least twice
or three times what it is if we are serious about societal and national
development, there are serious issues of governance and policy-making in
the sector that need to be urgently addressed. Otherwise no amount of
funds can help us lift ourselves out of the rut in which we presently find

Consider the decision to render English virtually into a medium of
instruction for all schools by the simple expedient of declaring that
certain subjects such as science will be compulsorily studied in that
language. Now this has a certain kind of appeal on the grounds of equity:
English is no longer only for the elites children studying in privileged
schools. It may also appeal on the grounds of competitiveness and the
imperatives of globalisation. But is the government aware of the fact that
the great majority of government schools are without teachers who are able
to teach English or for that matter any subject in English? The objective
of getting children of all backgrounds to be fluent in English is sound on
more grounds than one, even commendable. But without the provision of
necessary inputs, this policy is more likely to confound the prevailing
confusion and result in further loss of confidence and learning among
children than achieving the objective for which it is presumably being

How such decisions are taken remains a matter of some considerable
mystery. On the issue of language, let us refer, in some detail, to the
UNESCO 2006 EFA report to remind ourselves about the importance of
language policy: Language policies and practices have played and continue
to play, an important role in literacy and the development of literate
communities.  National language policies the designation of an official
language, the choice of language of instruction in schools and adult
learning programs can facilitate or hinder language development and
literacy acquisition.  Research consistently shows that learning to read
and write in ones mother tongue enhances access to literacy in other
languages. Yet literacy efforts in many countries lack a clear language

Tailpiece: The government is to be commended for its bold step in taking a
more inclusive approach to both religion and history in the new scheme of
studies as reported in the media. Once again, this may be a good time to
remind ourselves that in order to make a difference this policy shift will
require, among other things, a concomitant realignment of the examination
system and teacher training programmes as well as the production of
differently oriented and readable textbooks.

Commendable as this step is then, it was the easy part.

Abbas Rashid is a freelance journalist and political analyst whose career
has included editorial positions in various Pakistani newspapers


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