Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Pakistan’s education system has never enjoyed the benefits of systemisation. Public perception remains divided, hardly surprising given the ever-increasing gap within different assessment systems. As time progresses, coupled with vastly distinct performances from the private vs public sector, the network continues to seem bleaker and more diversified rather than moving towards one strong unified system.

Currently there exist 34 boards which work under the National Curriculum of Pakistan. Each province has different boards governing its assessment system. Mr Shehzad Jeeva, Director of the Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB), and a PhD holder from Cambridge, asserts the need for there to be one unified overarching means of assessment.

“There are too many systems,” he says in his booming, confident tone. “Scrap the structure. There’s too much confusion, with students translating their results into equivalencies and domiciles. Have one system throughout. You’ll see the difference.” He ends the conversation with optimistic smile — presumably in the hope that one day that dream might become truth.

Furthermore, a major concern surrounding most principals and school owners is the lack of fair assessment by the local boards. Mrs Kermin Parakh, principal of Baiverji Soparivala High School, points this out. “When you know the child is not an A-star student, and he simply wings it nonchalantly at the final stage, you know something’s not right.”


####Currently there are 34 education boards that work under the National Curriculum of Pakistan. Could the solution to the public-private education gap be one system?

Success, especially in systems like these, is believed to come from rote learning. “Regardless of the child’s concept clearance, the memorisation of the entire syllabus gets the child a good grade. Does he know his stuff?” She shakes her head. “Not at all. I can bet on it.”

With the existence of local boards providing an unfavourable learning experience, many have turned to different means of assessment. Standing tall as the ‘better, preferred’ systems are the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), and the AKU-EB.

“The CIE is an elitist system,” maintains Mrs Parakh. Throughout the public’s reliance upon this expensive substitute, it has been generally treated as superior to local boards as well as fairer in its assessment.

Dr Jeeva believes the gap between the international and localised boards has widened due to several factors. “The CIE, since it’s an international body, is inherently very costly. Most of our general populace cannot afford it, hence we’ve given it a loftier status due to its limited accessibility.”

Currently there are 34 education boards that work under the National Curriculum of Pakistan. Could the solution to the private-public education gap be one system?

The AKU-EB director adds further: “Those who have the means to utilise it generally come from educated families, have travelled and gained exposure…they already have supplements to their education. Then you have the other side of the spectrum, where students start from scratch with limited means. The real kudos, for me, is for the kid who gets everything by starting with nothing.”

Various schools have begun adopting an alternative to the CIE, which is the AKU-EB. Established in 2002, its first batch received their results in 2008. Their total cost is around one-third of the CIE’s cost for checking one subject’s paper. “I checked the syllabus material, and it’s all the same,” says Mrs Parakh.

“Cambridge uses Syllabus D; so do they. The only difference is that they’re a private, local medium and Cambridge is international,” she says.

AKU-EB, within a mere couple of years, has succeeded in making its presence known. “We provide concept-based learning, and our assessments are completely fair. Our papers are standardised, made for all students. And quite frankly,” says Dr Jeeva, peering through his black-rimmed glasses at me across the table, “I think our results speak very well for themselves.”

The usage of different boards is a dilemma in itself which needs proper monitoring. Added to that, surrounding the assessment system is the diversification within the learning mechanisms of the country. A study by Nguyen and Raju in 2014 concluded that approximately “one-third of all students in Pakistan attend private schools.”

Private schools are perceived to provide better quality education than their government counterparts. This is evidenced by the rising demand for private education in Pakistan. Why is this so?

Mrs Nargis Alavi, principal at Habib Public School, provides her answer to this question. “Private sector teachers have more of an incentive to provide quality education, because they know their job is at stake if they don’t!” she says. “If I were a public school principal, I wouldn’t be able to hire or fire a teacher on my own. They know it. That’s why most of them don’t bother coming to teach anyway. They get paid equally regardless of how much effort they put in.”

“Sometimes I wonder what will happen to the children,” she says tearfully. “Once you’ve been ripped off of your proper education, can you ever get it back?”

Mrs Alvi’s plight is echoed by NED university’s vice-chancellor, Dr M. Afzal Haque. He confirms that public universities have to reserve seats for different education boards to ensure a certain quota remains. “We charge 30,000 rupees per year for each child,” he says but upon prodding adds that the cost comes to “rupees two lac three thousand.”

“But what can I do? We’re not a profit-making entity…we have to cater to the masses,” Dr Haque points out.

With Pakistan’s education sector is in a tricky situation. What can be done? Mrs Alvi says the government should break the administration into different committees, each chunk must handle a separate task. “Be sincere in your efforts, support the system fully,” says Mrs Parakh. “The government can use one board as a model, and build one standardised assessment system for the entire nation.”

“Increase accountability in the public sector,” urges Mr. Haque. “Make sure entry is on merit. Change the pay to performance-based for teachers.”

Non-government organisations such as The Citizens’ Foundation (TCF) have provided one way the existing gap in the public system can be filled. Mr Isfandyar Khan, general manager at TCF’s strategic development unit, asserts that half of the students drop out of government schools. Within 21 years, the foundation has succeeded in amassing 175,000 children, and have close to 1,400 schools.

As our conversation wraps up, Mr Khan says something which sums up every other educational bearer’s perspective. “Every 10th child who does not go to school is from Pakistan. Thirty-five million are registered students, six million are out of school. Those who do go, learn differently at each school. Have we even realised what we are doing with our nation’s youth?”

The message is clear — our education system is on quicksand and sinking fast. It’s time to find a way out.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 22nd, 2017

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