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Education, justice and change

January 12, 2018

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THE Supreme Court chief justice, newspapers have reported, has observed that 30 million (the actual numbers might be slightly less) children between the ages of five and 16 years are out of school although Article 25-A in the basic rights section of the Constitution bestows the right to education on all children in this age group. He asked, rhetorically one presumes, if the state was actually fulfilling its duty towards children.

Article 25-A was inserted in the Constitution as part of the 18th Amendment. This amendment went into force in April 2010. The chief justice made his observation in January 2018. Was the honourable court not aware of the situation for the last eight years? Has this actually come as a surprise? Was the chief justice really ignorant of the situation? Ignorance cannot be an excuse. Not for those who hold positions of power and influence.

Have federal and provincial governments not been aware of the situation? Clearly not. They know the situation very well. Most provincial governments have been ‘celebrating’ their achievements in education and the pace at which ‘reforms’ have been carried out in their respective jurisdictions.

But the fact remains that millions are out of schools. There has been some progress in getting younger children of primary level into schools. But the dropout rates have remained high so that middle school and high school enrolment numbers remain depressingly low. But this is by design. Look at the school pyramids that most provinces have: Punjab has some 37,000 primary schools, 10,000-odd middle schools and only 6,000-odd high schools. The same structure prevails in other provinces. And gender-wise distribution is even more skewed against girls. Even allowing for high schools to be larger, will all children enrolling in primary school be able to reach the matriculation level as Article 25-A promises? And can it be that the bureaucracy, politicians and the judiciary do not know this?

Why is there no effective movement for reform?

All political parties, even in their 2013 election manifestoes, promised to raise funding for education to about four per cent of GDP. We are still spending only 2.4pc-odd on education and it is almost time for the next election.

We have not even touched the issue of quality of education. For the overwhelming majority of children in schools, whether they are in government schools or low-fee private schools, the education being imparted is, generally speaking, of very poor quality. The results of all examinations, whether conducted by the private or public sector, and across the country and across all levels of education, show the poor quality of learning that our students are being subjected too. Children in the fifth grade can, on average, only do third grade-level work. Students, even those studying in university, cannot engage with what they read in a critical manner. Rote learning is the norm. Even the results of the CSS examinations show how poorly prepared our Master’s-level students are.

I have been teaching at university level for the last 20 years. And though I have lectured and taught at some of the best universities in the country I can say confidently that the preparation of the average student, even at the very best institutions, is quite mediocre. Even the majority of those who come from elite schools and have appeared for their ‘A’-Level exams or equivalent international certifications are not very well prepared. They might have the grades as we have successfully cracked the examination system and know how to prepare students for specific exams, their general preparedness for developing critical abilities, for having the ability to learn and grow, ability for self-reflection and the ability and passion to commit to any field of inquiry are extremely limited.

The real issue is not ignorance, feigned or otherwise. The real issue is what is being done in the field of education and even more importantly, why are we in such a poor place in the field of education? How have we allowed ourselves to end up here and why is there no effective movement for reform that should be charting our way out of this poor state of affairs?

Shahzad has four children. He is working extremely hard to get them a decent education. He is, though it is expensive and very difficult for him to manage, sending all his children to low-fee private schools in Lahore. He believes he received a poor education from the public school he attended and had to withdraw from schooling too early.

He wants all his children to be graduates or to attend professional colleges. My very strong suspicion is that he is setting himself and his children up for disappointment. Keeping four children in private schools, as they move from primary to middle and then to high school is going to cost a lot. Shahzad is making just a little above the minimum wage. Even more disheartening is the fact that his children, with all these sacrifices, are getting an education that is of quite poor quality. It is very difficult to see them competing against children from elite schools and making it to good-quality professional colleges and universities.

All this is known. The real question is where will the impetus for change come from? It does not seem that it will come from the political parties, the bureaucracy or the government. It does not seem that the courts will be able to drive the change. The socioeconomic setup of the country will have to alter radically to address the challenges of equity, equality and quality in education. There does not seem to be any hope for such radical change at the moment.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2018