AN incurable optimist once commented that the good thing about hitting rock bottom is that you then have to move upwards. He probably didn’t believe that one may remain stuck at the bottom and not move at all. We were talking about education in Pakistan.
ASER 2014, released last week, records a mixed bag of achievements. Since 2010, the Annual Status of Education Report, which describes itself as “the largest citizen-led, household-based initiative” has been collecting education-related data predominantly from rural areas to assess the quality of the learning output of children.
The most creditable aspect about this exercise is that it has sustained itself for five years and its findings have proved to be fairly reliable. For that we have to thank Baela Raza Jamil, the founder and country coordinator of ASER Pakistan, and her team for not losing hope in this country and its people.
One positive finding — albeit a very small one — is that school enrolment for the six- to 16-year-olds rose from 92pc in 2013 to 94pc in 2014. The children’s learning level in one of the local languages and arithmetic also showed a slight improvement over the preceding year. Of the children in Grade 5, 60pc could read a story in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto in 2014 when only 55pc could do so in 2013.
The state school sector has not expanded to meet the needs of the people.
Similarly, 53pc children from this class worked out a two-digit division sum in 2014 when only 51pc could do so in 2013. But English competency declined, with only 56pc children in Class 5 being able to read a sentence in English in 2014 when 60pc could do so in 2013.
In any case, this marks a major step forward if we take 2010 as the baseline. In that year, school enrolment stood at 79.6pc. Even learning levels were worse five years ago. Only 51.6pc students in Class 5 could read a story in one of the local languages while 42.3pc could read a sentence in English. Only 34.3pc could do a division sum with a two-digit number.
Why I do not celebrate this progress is that it has come through the private sector or the non-state provider as the report describes it. Enrolment in the non-state institutions that include madressahs has increased from 22.5pc in 2013 to 26.6pc in 2014 in rural Pakistan. It was 23.3pc in 2010. Enrolment in the public sector schools has declined proportionately — from 59pc in 2013 to 55.4 pc in 2014. ASER confirms that the learning level of children in private schools is better.
This does not augur well for education in Pakistan. A state can achieve full literacy only through its own institutions. Private schools charge a fee. Many are commercialised ventures which invest heavily but cut corners where they can and make good profits from the exorbitant fees they charge. For low-fees institutions it is a constant struggle to stay afloat which means they cannot invest heavily in their teachers — in terms of their training and remuneration — and that affects standards.
With over 60pc of the population living below the poverty line, there are hundreds of thousands of children who need good education at a very low cost or free of charge. Only the state can provide that. Why is the Pakistan state failing them in that respect?
The main reason is that education is not a priority of the government. The state school sector has not expanded to meet the needs of the people. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2013-14, only 400 primary schools were opened in the country when the population is believed to be growing at the rate of four million per annum.
This system has not been upgraded either. As a result, enrolment is falling in public-sector institutions. Quality has declined. Worse still, corruption has been given a free rein and the funds earmarked for schools are being misappropriated in a big way.
Multi-grade classes, where children from more than one grade are squeezed into a single classroom, are another indication of the non-serious attitude of the education authorities. No child can learn in a noisy environment.
As a result, people are turning to the private sector not all of which really meets their needs. Schools run by NGOs are donor-driven and when their proprietors fail to raise donations they pull down their shutters and go home.
All this affects the accessibility of schools, the academic standards of teachers and the learning level of children.
Gradually awareness is dawning on the public. Without good education children fail to acquire knowledge and do not learn critical thinking. With the system having gone to the dogs for over four decades solutions are not easy to find. The teachers are the product of this decayed system which means new models have to be found which address the education of the educators as well as the students.
Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2015