THOSE who wield power in Pakistan are hardly concerned about the state of public education because they can afford to send their children to private schools. Those with no choice but to turn to government schools lack the influence to demand change. Hence it is welcome that the Supreme Court has taken notice of ‘ghost’ schools — public ‘schools’ where no teaching takes place but whose teachers draw regular salaries. Hearing a related case on Monday, the apex court ordered the formation of a commission, made up of district and sessions judges, to report on the details of ghost and non-functional schools in the country.
Estimates by NGOs indicate that there are thousands of such schools throughout Pakistan, although the problem is most acute in Sindh. While figures suggest that around 25 million children are out of school nationwide, the neglect of public education is manifesting itself in different ways in the provinces. In Sindh over a third of schools don’t have a building or boundary wall. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, aside from the large-scale destruction of schools by militants, many institutes have closed because teachers prefer to seek better paying jobs in the urban areas. Among Punjab’s main problems is the illegal occupation of schools. Balochistan faces a litany of woes, among them the fact that the majority of teachers in rural areas don’t show up to teach. The core of the problem everywhere is the same: bad governance.
It is difficult to address the inadequacies of the curriculum or pedagogy if the physical infrastructure is poor or no teaching is going on because schools exist only on paper. Efforts were made during Gen Musharraf’s rule to ascertain the situation in public schools, which is when the issue of ghost schools came to the fore. By all accounts, attempts to reduce teacher absenteeism met with resistance as many elected nazims of the time argued that holding teachers accountable would not go down well in their constituencies. The Supreme Court-constituted committee should now focus on checking the misuse of education funds and curbing teacher absenteeism. Ideally, local people must be hired, trained and persuaded to stay in their native areas as it is difficult to convince those based in cities to move to the hinterland. There must also be zero tolerance for political inductions and interference in educational affairs, as political appointees serve the interests of their patrons rather than of education. Denying Pakistan’s children educational opportunities will result in a nation of uneducated millions with no marketable skills, causing further complications such as reduced productivity and social strife. In fact, the disaster is already in the process of unfolding.