Pakistan: English to replace Urdu for teaching science and mathematics

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Dec 14 14:02:10 UTC 2006

 Pakistan's education gamble
 Ehsan Masood
13 - 12 - 2006

On 30 November 2006, Pakistan announced what must count as one of the more
far-reaching educational reforms for a generation: from September 2007,
English will replace Urdu as the language in which science and mathematics
will be taught in all state schools. At a stroke, the government has
chosen to reverse the policy introduced two decades ago under the military
regime of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-88), whereby English is not formally
taught in state schools until a child reaches the age of 10.

The new policy is good in principle, because higher education, research
and access to better-paying jobs need a degree of proficiency in English
that pupils from Urdu-language schools tend not to have. Moreover,
introducing English alongside Urdu and other regional languages from the
earliest years will undoubtedly make a difference to the lives of many.
But whether the government can make the policy work is another matter.
Like the Zia ul-Haq initiative, it will need at least one complete
ten-year cycle of primary and secondary schooling before it becomes
embedded in the education system. Pakistani government officials, however,
have a habit of making life more difficult than it already is. Of all the
places in the world they could have chosen, the new language policy was
outlined at a press conference in Washington DC. This was the same event
at which the Bush administration announced $100 million in education aid
to Pakistan.

In what would have been a carefully-scripted event, two senior
administration officials (under-secretary Nicholas Burns and education
secretary Margaret Spellings) linked the aid to counter-terrorism goals.
Pakistan's education minister Javed Ashraf Qazi seemed to reiterate this
when he said: "Today we have realised that we need to educate our people,
otherwise illiterate masses become ready recruits for all sorts of
unhealthy activities." Some commentators have understandably taken this as
a sign of American fingerprints over Pakistan's education reforms. The
facts are somewhat different. The US money will go towards an education
reform plan that was authored in Islamabad, and be an additional part of a
$1.5 billion package of grants and loans that Pakistan has been receiving
towards education reforms, and which were announced soon after General
Pervez Musharraf took power in 1999.

The US is a relatively small donor to these reforms, dwarfed as it is by
the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the countries of the
European Union. The reforms are well underway and include ramping-up the
numbers of trained teachers, upgrading failing schools, reviewing the
curriculum, subsidising the costs of textbooks and uniforms, raising adult
literacy and getting more young people into higher education.

The private option

The total aid package may seem large, but it is nowhere near what is
needed if Pakistan is to achieve its Millennium Development Goal of
universal primary education before 2015. According to the education
ministry's own data some 17.5 million children are expected to be in
primary school by 2015, for which some $17 billion will be needed to put
them through school. The government reckons it can find $13 billion from
existing sources. But it is at least $4 billion short, and most likely
will need at least twice as much. Observers and critics of the government
ought to start asking Qazi where this extra money is to be found. They
could do something better and ask him whether alternative strategies are
worth thinking about. There is good reason to ask. A paper by the World
Bank (A Dime A Day: The Possibilities and Limits of Private Schooling in
Pakistan, 1 November 2006 ) suggests that additional investment in public
sector education could be leading to diminishing returns.

The paper shows that overall enrolment rates in government schools have
stood still over time. In contrast, enrolment in private schools has shot
up, with the steepest increases in rural areas where you would least
expect this to happen. Overall, more than one-third of primary school-age
children are in private schools. The authors understandably ask whether it
could be possible to raise this percentage further at little or no extra
cost to parents. Why are private schools so popular among Pakistan's
poorest, when in developed countries, less than 5% of families on low
incomes send children to private schools? A major factor is educational
quality. Worldwide, privately-funded schools tend to offer a significantly
better quality of education compared to state-funded ones. In Pakistan,
however, the difference between the two amounts to a chasm. Pakistan's
state schools are notoriously bad.

Some figures from the largest Punjab province are indicative. Some 3,500
schools do not have a building; of those that do, 4,000 are classed as
being "dangerous"; 29,000 schools have no electricity; 14,000 have no
drinking water; 22,000 do not have a toilet; 4,000 consist of a single
classroom; and fewer than 100 secondary schools have science labs. A
second reason for their popularity is that private schools offer better
facilities, improved teaching, and early introduction of English compared
with state schools. A third reason is expense. Pakistan's private schools
offer incredible value for money. The World Bank has worked out that the
median fee per pupil comes to $24 per year. Fees are kept low in part
because teachers are predominantly female, who are paid less than men
would earn in the same job.

A hard choice

If there is demand from parents, and the ability exists to pay towards
costs, common sense suggests more needs to be done to develop private
schools and to bring them under some sort of regulatory framework. There
are excellent initiatives already underway such as The Citizens
Foundation, a community group that builds and maintains good schools in
deprived areas. One of the benefits of such a strategy for international
donors is that it doesn't require billions of dollars to build and
maintain infrastructure. Instead, targeted assistance could be used to
purchase expertise in teacher-training, schools management, inspections
and parent/staff associations. Pakistan might be a nuclear power, but half
of its people cannot read or write, and at least one third of the nation's
children are not in primary school. Admittedly, these figures are an
improvement on the past, but they still lag behind India (83%
primary-school enrolment), Sri Lanka (90%), even Nepal (70%). And they are
behind government targets for 100% primary enrolment by 2015.

Private schools can never be the only solution to Pakistan's education
crisis, and they will never be affordable to the very poorest. But they
remain enormously popular among lower-income families. A strategy to
develop them further will in the very least help Pakistan to advance
towards its target of education for all.

This is the first of two articles on education in Pakistan. Next: what
price phasing out Urdu?


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