While hearing a case on Sept 10 related to education, the Chief Justice of Pakistan remarked that education was the fundamental right of every Pakistani child as per constitutional provisions. He deplored the status of public schools, many of which have turned into ghost institutions. Statistics show that despite the billions of rupees of expenditure through various public budgetary heads and donor-funded programmes, the performance and impact of government schools is fast depleting in the country. There are several core factors to be considered in this respect.
When Pakistan came into being, there was virtually no educational divide, at least in the major urban centres. The offspring of the privileged and dispossessed went to the same schools. Government schools and welfare trust-run facilities were a prominent category. The curriculum-based divide seldom existed and people had faith in the working of the examination boards. As a result, a generation that had deep roots in society was trained and educated. This generation cared for public causes, participated in welfare, philanthropic and development activities and understood the woes of fellow beings.
Many prominent diplomats, bureaucrats, scientists, public leaders and men and women of letters hailed from this background.
The nationalisation of schools, fiddling of state institutions in curriculum setting, evolution and rapid rise of private schools in cities and eventual affiliations with international examination systems created a schism in the educational landscape that has drastically divided the society into various castes and slabs. The elite and privileged now only subscribe to flashy and trendy schools many of which have become sought after brands. In other words, education has become a tradable commodity — not a public service that benefited folks across the board.
Earlier, the school master was not an isolated individual. He was a universally respected figure of society. The government school in any hamlet, village, cluster or town was a commonly cherished place, socially subscribed to by the entire community.
The school master was a dedicated individual who chose to adopt the field of education as a mission — not as an enterprise for reaping profits. With his meager emoluments, he would contentedly discharge his services with selflessness and with the aim of making his pupils learn and perform.
During the early 20th century and after, scores of literature references and anecdotes inform us about the nation-building role these tens of thousands of school masters played with very limited resources. Most of them were very competent and capable people. For example, Mohammad Sharif Toosy, a head master from a school in Wazirabad, was an ace columnist before Partition who was invited by Mr Jinnah to live in his house and write a vital communication document related to All India Muslim League about the justification of the Pakistan scheme. The founder of Pakistan had so much confidence in this apparently ordinary school teacher that he is reported to have offered Toosy to join Dawn in a senior editorial capacity in 1943.
However, the able school master politely declined and went back to Wazirabad to continue his teaching work there.
After the creation of Pakistan, the same tradition continued. Locational remoteness seldom eclipsed the dedication and spirit of school masters. But during 1970s and after, the tide turned. The appointments were made with nascent political intervention, bypassing merit and the desire to teach. When quality in teaching declined, the edifice of education also crumpled. Ghost schools, absconding teachers and disconnected administration are some of the common sights along government-run outfits.
That billions of rupees are spent on school education every year without achieving targets of quantity and benchmarks of quality makes it a grave concern. The status of buildings and infrastructure is also infested with multiple problems. According to a recent report of Sindh Ministry of Education, 12,794 schools are shelterless; 34,386 are without electricity; 26,669 do not have boundary wall protection; 23,349 do not possess a lavatory block and 25,237 have no access to drinking water. One can imagine that in such pathetic conditions, even a basic system of education cannot deliver. Remedial efforts have been initiated usually on a fire fighting basis which is not sustainable. Multiple programmes by Sindh Education Foundation, donor-funded Sindh Education Reform Programme and small scale initiatives by NGOs to assist government schools are some examples.
However, the rot is far too greater in scale than the combined impact of these initiatives.
Some educational experts criticise the sub-low status of the curriculum. There is no denying the fact that the school curricula have been tampered by successive regimes. Messages and contents aimed to promote self-serving propaganda have been shamelessly incorporated. The so called Islamisation project of General Ziaul Haq was amply reflected in various textbooks during the 1980s. In addition, falling competence level of school teachers is also a reason for not achieving the cardinal objectives that every school curriculum normally possesses. The affected are the pupils who receive sub-standard education without even realising the future disadvantages they are likely to experience in their lives.
No magic solution can cure these deep-rooted ailments. A credible and transparent mechanism of teacher’s recruitment and facilitation is a core requirement. The government can consider devising a competitive examination, selection and training process to lift up the status of this most vital cadre of academic staff. School buildings and premises may be designed and developed through an effective means of public private partnership. A civil society led monitoring mechanism may be founded to keep a performance check in various districts on a regular frequency. With unrelenting efforts, the revival of quality education in government schools can be guaranteed surely.
The writer is professor and chairman, Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University, Karachi.