The first question

March 28, 2014

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FIGURES put out by experts do defy our own realities. Walking around in Lahore late morning, among all young faces that peep out of houses and shops, you don’t realise that only about 11pc of the youngsters who should be in school are not enrolled.

You don’t really believe your ears when a survey tells you only 11pc of the public sector primary schools are without toilets, or that some 70pc of the students in Class V in a government school are able to understand the contents of an Urdu story taught to children in Class II. Or that two-thirds of the Class V students can read sentences in English or that one-third of them can successfully attempt two-digit divisions. Some 78pc public-sector primary schools in Lahore have their own playgrounds! Which schools? Which playgrounds? That must be some Lahore.

The news report which quoted from a survey of schools in Lahore last week didn’t give the size of the sample or the breakup of the areas that were focused on. This leaves space for discussion.

The first question would be whether to treat the matter of the 11pc missing school students as the basis for criticism of the Punjab government which is always taken to task for its bias for Lahore, or to rise above the standard scepticism and congratulate the government for achieving 89pc enrolment. This is well above Pakistan’s national average, and could be compared with other parts of the country falling in other governments’ jurisdiction, to put these lesser others to some additional shame.

Credit must be given where it is due, but the number of school-age souls you run into on an ordinary day would suggest a lot many more than just 11 in 100 are unable to attend school here.

For one, the age-old practice of employing youngsters in menial jobs at businesses and offices and more technical jobs at this and that workshop has shown no sign of ebbing.

It might well be that a large number of these young, deft, obedient hands are new to Lahore, as they have shifted to the city in the last few years. It could be that they have not fully registered their presence in the city’s log book and are still unrecognised. Or perhaps they are more concentrated in localities which were not surveyed. In any case, the current findings demand a deeper investigation to help us arrive at a larger picture.

The undesirable picture is all the more needed due to the sad pointers the survey provides about the quality of education being imparted. Given the percentages, and notwithstanding our penchant for setting the record rather than setting it straight, it seems those enrolled are doing only slightly better than the outright unfortunate ones who do not attend school.

Those who go to school might have been more likely to get their sentences right away from a classroom in an office and their sums right at a shop. Instead they are in a place where they can be frequently found complaining of oppression, if hammering of concepts and information is something they have not yet learnt, will never learn, to be wary of.

At the launch of the study last Saturday, a speaker urged the community to come forward to address the crisis of education. While the usual rhetoric raised by the well-meaning would continue unabated, this call to the community could be best heeded by parents who can exert pressure and force change.

It is no use parents limiting themselves to the self-satisfying ritual of waking their children in the morning and sending them off to school as if in a dream. The pursuance of the big dream would require them to be a bit more proactive.

The study makes no revelation when it says the private-sector schools are doing, literally, a better job of it. Private schools are under some pressure from paying parents to deliver. The argument is that since the parents of the young students admitted to public-sector schools are only paying a nominal fee they feel they do not have sound enough reason to question the quality of education being imparted to their children.

This point is not valid. Someone is paying for education at state schools: the tax-payer or the donor. If there are noises, the donor will take up the issue. There are ways through which these parents can express their dissatisfaction with the standards of education. They must start making noises and there is capacity in the society and there are agents who can help them organise their drive for some well-deserved change.

It is amazing just how many of us are seen effectively demonstrating against non-provision of basic amenities at various squares of Lahore on any given day. People protest the absence of electricity, gas, water, justice, angrily. Yet there are no protests when children are not given their due inside a classroom. The die is cast so firmly that those who are denied good education at an early age are seldom able to raise questions about what they are imparted even later on in life.

The parents have a role in making better teachers and education officials out of the available lot. These government employees need a nudge towards improvement, and failing that a push through the exit door.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.