SINDH is a land of paradox. For several years, the provincial government has been spending massive amounts on education, or so it claims, but has failed to make any impact on the learning outcome of students. Quite a large number of children — 59 pc according to the Pakistan Social And Living Standards Measurement Survey 2014-15 — remain out of school.
I call this a paradox because when it comes to making verbal commitments, Sindh cannot be faulted. Thus apart from the huge financial allocations the province has been announcing for this sector, it was the first to adopt a right to education law to endorse Article 25-A of the Constitution. This recognises the right of every child between five and 16 years of age to free and compulsory education.
But there is also the fact that year after year the Annual Status of Education Report has been recording the appalling outcome of the tests the Aser team has conducted in rural Sindh. In the 2015 report, Sindh was at the lowest rung in the country. Nearly 55 per cent of class 5 children could not read a class 2 story in Urdu or Sindhi. In English they were worse. About 75pc of class 5 children could not read sentences of class 2 level. And yet the government is believed to be toying with the idea of introducing English as the medium of instruction.
The poor results notwithstanding, the education budget of Sindh has been growing. In the last five years it has shot up phenomenally by 45pc from Rs109bn in 2012-13 to Rs 158.8bn in 2016-17. Additionally, the province receives massive foreign aid for education from foreign sponsors.
There are serious issues of access and quality in education.
Where is all the money going? According to a policy brief prepared by Aser, the education sector’s budgetary allocations are grossly under-utilised. Thus in 2014-15 more than a quarter of the budget was not used. This is nothing unusual because the government’s lopsided planning fails to create the capacity that should be there to use the funds allocated. It amounts to deceiving the public when a much smaller amount is actually spent.
This also points to the lopsided planning which fails to address the basic issues. It is the development budget that creates capacity. But this year only Rs13bn has been set aside for the ADP, and if past performance is an indicator, barely half will be used.
Another weak area is the school-specific allocation used for school improvement and operation. Since 70pc of the recurrent budget goes into salaries which is fully utilised a very small amount is left for schools. Of this, less than half is actually used.
The highlights identified by the policy brief are clear indicators of the malaise that has undermined the quality of education in Sindh. They give an insight into how education is managed. The government has failed to correct two basic problems that need to be addressed immediately if change is to be initiated.
These are the issues of access and quality. All the out-of-school children in Sindh must be enrolled by making schools accessible to all. This is possible if their numbers are increased sufficiently and they are rationally dispersed geographically. The 46,000 schools — 91pc of them primary — are not sufficient to accommodate all five- to 16-year-olds. Wrong planning accounts for the very high dropout rate in the province.
The newly introduced monthly monitoring and biometrics mechanism has somewhat checked absenteeism albeit only in the 14 districts where it is operating. The remaining 15 districts should also be provided coverage.
The irregular attendance of teachers is not the only issue. The poor quality of their pedagogy and their inability to motivate students is also a major factor impeding progress. As products of this decadent system, most teachers lack knowledge and training. One suspects that many of them get hired not on merit but through sifarish or by purchasing their posts. Neither practice is tolerable.
A beginning will have to be made with the planning process. It should be balanced and well-integrated with every sector receiving equal attention. If the physical infrastructure is upgraded but the school management committees do not function the end results will still be poor. The census, if it is held, should facilitate the planning and distribution of resources.
The harder nut to crack will be that of improving the teachers’ standards. More and better training facilities should help though it may be easier to lead the horse to water than to make it drink it. New recruits should be required to undergo as a mandatory condition pre-service training. The others should also be asked to attend courses tailored for different levels. In any case training should be a continuous process and promotions must be linked to teachers passing examinations every few years. Thus teachers will keep abreast of new developments in their field.
Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2016