ACCORDING to Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring Report [GEMR] 2016 released recently, only two-thirds of children worldwide would have completed primary schooling by 2030, the deadline set by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The report also stresses the need for human dignity, social inclusiveness and equity in education so that economic growth does not intensify inequalities in society but empowers everyone. For this, Unesco calls on policymakers to adopt new approaches and fundamentally change their thinking on education. Thus it hopes to create a safer, greener and fairer planet for all.
What is the prognosis for Pakistan? The goal of universal primary education in South Asia will be achieved in 2051, says the GEMR. Actually, it might be much later for Pakistan because most of our neighbours in the region are developing faster than us education-wise and their population growth is also slower.
There are many reasons why Pakistan has failed to achieve its education targets. Here it should be pointed out that generally our policymakers focus excessively on quantitative goals and ignore qualitative achievements. An equitable and inclusive approach is also missing. Aser, an annual report on education, has proved year after year how our education system, especially in the public sector, is failing to teach children the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and critical thinking. Simply having children enrolled in schools is not enough.
Parents want to educate their children, but in schools that function.
Of course, the ideal approach would be to combine quantitative with qualitative targets. This calls for a serious analysis of why we are failing. Policymakers still stick to conventional beliefs that help to shift the blame to others. For instance, one widespread myth is that ‘ignorant parents’ still have to be told about the advantages of education and be persuaded to send their children to school. New institutions will be underutilised, our rulers want us to believe.
The fact is that most parents (even those who are illiterate or uneducated themselves) now want to send their children to school — but schools that function. Many applicants have to be turned down because they cannot be accommodated for lack of capacity.
Take the case of The Garage School (TGS) that Shabina set up in 1999 in Karachi and that has been expanding incrementally. The school started with 14 children in Shabina’s garage. She wanted to educate underprivileged children to commemorate her late husband, a PAF officer killed in the 1971 war. Over the years, TGS has attracted children from Neelum Colony and now its three branches, one with an afternoon shift, provide holistic education to 486 girls and boys. The elementary section that opened last month has 80 children on its rolls.
More significant than the children who have been admitted (187) is the number of those who had to be turned away — 215 of them this year. Even the elementary section which has younger children (the youngest is 4.5 years) had to turn down applicants for lack of space, prompting Shabina to say, “My heart went out to the dreary faces of those who couldn’t get in.”
The elementary section is relevant to the GEMR in another way. By drawing in children younger in age, institutions can ensure that the retention rate will go up and thus the number of out-of-school primary age children (5.6 million in Pakistan) will drop.
The 2009 education policy, still in place, introduced the concept of pre-primary classes. However, the number of public-sector institutions equipped to accommodate toddlers in their nursery/kindergarten classes is not enough.
Elementary education is now universally recognised. In our social conditions exposing a child to the school environment as early as possible should be an advantage. Shabina feels that at the pre-primary age children are impressionable and can be easily “groomed and taught discipline” to be brought at a par with the best of students in the country. Thus she hopes to make them “the stars” which all children have the potential of becoming.
An important feature of the TGS is that it is a family-oriented institution. It not only provides education to the children, it also manages their health and lifestyle. The GEMR links health with the child’s capacity to learn. The TGS has proved that it is possible to keep students healthy. All children are given a medical check-up at the time of admission and health problems are addressed by good-hearted paediatricians who help the school. Children receive multivitamins and healthy snacks daily during the mid-morning break.
The preschool classes should help immensely if education is tailored to the children’s mental capacities and is a fun and creative activity conducted through art, music and games without burdening children with excessive work that kills their initiative and robs them of their interest in school work. Preschoolers should have a head start over older fellow students who begin school later.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2016