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How the state fails its children

March 07, 2015


The writer is a former cabinet secretary.
The writer is a former cabinet secretary.

VISITING a government-run school in an urban centre a few months ago, I was shocked to see 50 children sitting in a classroom that clearly had space for no more than 25 students. The children were seated in three rows with hardly any space between each row; three or more students were seated most uncomfortably at each desk. On the backs of the chairs hung their heavy schoolbags leaving very little space for them to sit and work.

A large majority of our government school buildings were constructed over a quarter of a century ago and depict a picture of complete neglect with crumbling walls, broken windows and doors, and ceilings that leak when it rains. And the less said about the toilets, the better. The impression that one gets is that once constructed, no attention is ever paid to their maintenance much less to upgrading them. Stories of schools being used by influential people as animal pens, sadly, flash across the screens of our televisions more often than one would imagine; these images fleetingly shock us and are then forgotten.

Though the government is constitutionally obligated to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16 years, a look at various indicators tells us that this is certainly far from being the case. A great deal of work has been done on the state of education in Pakistan and the indicators tell us that there is a strong trend of children shifting from public to private schools, a high dropout rate and an alarming ratio between the number of primary and middle schools and primary and secondary schools. When investments are made in the education sector, the focus remains mostly on primary education as it costs more to invest in middle and secondary schools and in this regard both the government and the private sector are responsible.

It is tragic that even the paltry 2pc of our GDP earmarked for education is not fully utilised.

Two per cent of our GDP is earmarked for education, one of the worst in the region, and we would undoubtedly be correct in observing that this percentage is very low. What is even more unfortunate is the fact that even this paltry 2pc is not fully utilised. What this points to is a severe crisis of governance and capacity in the provincial education departments. The largest chunk of the education budget comprises the budget for salaries and a smaller chunk is for non-development and development activities.

Most government schools are also short on teaching staff due to archaic and restrictive procedures for the hiring of new teachers and this is one of the reasons why even the money allocated for salaries in the education budget is not fully spent. Most of the time there is a ban on fresh hiring and even if this is not the case, the overworked provincial public service commissions are unable to make timely recommendations to hire new teaching staff.

Centralisation of powers in the hands of provincial education departments is another one of the causes of the perennial shortage of teaching staff across the country because hiring of teachers for junior classes is the responsibility of the education department.

Now on to the even smaller development and non-development chunk of the education budgets which also remains woefully underutilised. The reasons — planning and development and education departments are not committed to completing their projects and there are lengthy and cumbersome procedures for the utilisation of funds. A cursory examination of the state of government schools is ample proof of the fact that while 2pc of GDP may be getting earmarked for education, what actually gets spent is a whole lot less.

Even ensuring that the annual allocation for education is better utilised would require some real out-of-the-box thinking as the existing procedures make it unlikely. It is often said that Pakistan is in an education emergency and so the least that we can do is spend whatever we have allocated. To this end the government may like to keep the funds for every province in a specially designated education account so that re-appropriation to another head in the education budget is possible if the salary component is underutilised.

There are numerous other areas where this money could be tremendously useful in education only. Under the current accounting procedures for government spending, this cannot be done. This special provision in the rules would ensure that the 2pc of GDP which we claim to be spending on education is actually spent on education. How else will we ensure that the 25 million out-of-school children in Pakistan, roughly four times the population of Singapore, attend school?

As mentioned earlier, enrolment rates in Pakistan remain dismal. However, if we would like to ensure that at least the children who receive primary education go on to secondary school, serious concerted efforts between the public and private sectors are necessary. An integrated approach to a large number of issues can yield much better results; the lead in this will have to be taken by the provincial education departments.

Our politicians are wont to convening all-party conferences or joint sessions of parliament on matters of national importance but none has ever been convened on the education emergency. It may be time to change that. Doing so would send a strong signal to all those working in this sector and may lead to a positive change in the discourse on education in the provinces.

We have to realise that there is a strong correlation between improving the education sector and the success of the National Action Plan. If we are unable to provide quality education to our children as obligated by the Constitution, we will face tremendous difficulties in fighting militancy, extremism and terrorism as we are merely treating the symptoms and not the causes, leaving our aspirations of making Pakistan a peace-loving country, a distant dream.

The writer is a former cabinet secretary.

Published in Dawn March 7th , 2015

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