If any social sector in Pakistan needs political commitment, it is education.

With 24 million out-of-school children, everything related to the provision of equitable education conspires against the poor. Problems of access and quality of teaching are among the biggest concerns.

However, the first metric used by most is the budgetary allocation for education.

Consider next year’s federal allocation for education at Rs84 billion compared to Rs75.6bn in 2015-2016 — a nominal 11.4pc increase. The bulk of this amount — Rs63.6bn or 75pc of the budget — has been earmarked for tertiary education. Moreover, an additional allocation of Rs79.5bn to the Higher Education Commission indicates an 11pc hike – the ‘highest ever’, according to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar.

Read: ‘81pc of all schools in Pakistan are primary’

But in the education sector, there is a big gap between allocations and outcomes. When provinces spend less than half of their annual budgetary allocation for education, funds saved are spent elsewhere or they lapse. Cleverly, expenditure increases usually focus on social sector development, misleading voters by portraying governments as pro-development.

In its Annual Development Programme (ADP) Punjab, for instance, has earmarked Rs169bn for social sectors in FY2017. Now with Rs73.3bn from this fund allotted to education, the government appears committed to raising spending on ambitious projects.

But if last year’s record is anything to go by, only Rs20bn was spent on education — less than half the amount budgeted. Skewed priorities meant funds saved were spent on infrastructure and urban mass transit systems.

It is not only improved education allocations that will determine outcomes, but also how this money is spent that will bridge gross inequalities.

Campaigner Baela Raza Jamil, a trustee at Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, explains why education indicators remain low. She argues that increasing budgets do not necessarily indicate better utilisation of funds, especially in Sindh and Balochistan.

Ms Jamil suggested holding “an open kutchery” to solve the problem”.

If a quantum increase in education expenditure – from 2.1pc to 4pc of the GDP – were to happen, the government will need an additional Rs485bn, according to an Alif Ailaan study. Current federal allocations need to rise to Rs243.8bn and the provinces will need to double cumulative allocations to Rs975bn by then to meet this target.

Goals unmet

Although Article 25-A of the Constitution holds the state responsible for provision of education until a child turns 16, universal primary education goals remain unmet. With 81pc of all government schools operating as primary schools (124,070 primary schools) and 19pc as middle, higher or highersecondary schools, according to the Pakistan District Education Rankings 2016, the country is on track to possibly miss the SDGs (inclusive and equitable just as it failed to meet the MDGs).

That educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will, and less likely to die during childbirth is an indicator that education can lead to women’s empowerment.

Provincial governments do administer programmes that seek to raise girls’ enrolment, but their effectiveness remains unmeasured.

Having devised an innovative model for disbursing stipends to girls through Tameer Bank’s network, for example, Sindh reported spending at almost 87pc (Rs1.3bn utilised versus Rs1.5bn allocated). Despite increased allocations, Sindh has the largest overall decrease in learning scores among all four provinces, according to Alif Ailaan’s 2016 report – scores attributed to poor quality teaching as well as low enrolment and retention rates.

Fifty per cent of girls drop out of primary school, whereas 61pc of girls in Sindh will never attend school – a stark reminder that more money without adequate reforms cannot improve education indicators.

In 2014-15, Punjab allocated Rs1.5bn for the Female School Stipend programme, but disbursed only Rs 20.9m. The next year it budgeted for 1.5bn again, but data on how much was disbursed has not come in yet.

For 2016-17, it has proposed a stipend increase from Rs200 to 1,000 per month. Without enough time to plan for allocations it is impossible to adequately utilise funds, education advocate Dr Jan-i- Alam Khaki eplained. Corruption is also endemic. “Most head teachers in Sindh and Balochistan fear paying bribes – especially to audit teams – and so refrain from spending allocations. Money is not going to solve our problems.”

However, Mosharraf Zaidi, who heads Alif Ailaan’s advocacy campaign, calls for massive new spending. He argues increased education budgets are necessary with better utilisation when 24 million children are out of school.

On his part, activist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy believes “spending more money will not help create a more peaceful country. Only a change in the content of education can move us in that direction”.

Finally, the government should be reminded that the only way out of cyclical poverty and militancy is education.

Published in Dawn, June 22th, 2016