A LOT of attention in education has been on enrolment: we want a higher percentage, if not 100 per cent, of children in schools. There has been some success. All provinces are claiming that enrolments, especially at the primary level, have gone up. Whether this has been driven by efforts in the public sector or is due to the rapid expansion of availability of private-sector education, this debate can be left aside. And though enrolment is still not universal even at the primary level, it has increased. As enrolment rates have gone up, naturally, the gender gap has also narrowed.
There are still pockets that require attention though: children from very poor backgrounds, children facing physical, learning or mental challenges, and children marginalised due to reasons of caste, ethnicity or religion. But the real challenge is at the middle and high school level now.
Our middle and high school graduation rates are still very low. Too many children do not continue beyond primary school or drop out later. But the Constitution’s Article 25A, the right to education, promises “free” and “compulsory” education to all five- to 16-year-olds. If we are serious about educating the youth of Pakistan, we have to focus on the middle and high schools.
The issues pertaining to middle and high schools are obvious. We do not have enough schools at this level. The public-sector pyramid is narrow at the top: there are 145,829 government primary schools in Pakistan and only 31,740 high schools. Out of these, 6,816 high schools are for girls only. But the same is the case with the private sector. Where it is easy to open a primary school, opening and managing a high school is costlier and harder — we need specialised teachers, laboratories, etc. Doing this at very low-fee levels is not possible. Quality of education being given across most of the public and private sector is an issue too. Why should children stay in schools if they do not learn what they are supposed to? Why should parents keep children in schools if they do not see any returns on their investment? There are rights-based and public-good arguments here, but these might not be persuasive enough for many parents and families surviving in significantly constrained circumstances.
There are still districts in the country that do not have even a single high school for girls.
There are still districts in the country that do not have even a single high school for girls. There are plenty of tehsils and far too many union councils that do not have high schools, especially for girls. Clearly, we have to increase the number of middle and high schools. If the distance to school is great, or if it increases significantly as children move from primary to middle or high school, students will drop out. This would be especially true for girls. But building more schools is an expensive and time-consuming process. None of the provinces, currently, seems to be interested in dealing with this issue.
If we cannot bring the school closer to the student, we can bring the student closer to the school. Offering secure, safe and paid-for transport facilities might be a part of the solution. Average estimates for transport costs are around Rs1,500 to Rs2,000 per child per month. If education is ‘free’ then getting to school and back should also be covered as it is an ingredient in the ‘cost’ of education. But here too none of the provincial governments have started to think about larger programmes. Whether we distribute bicycles to students, provide them with a bus service, give them vouchers, or think of another way of paying for and providing transport, ie making sure that there is no cost to the parents, it is hard to see how education can be made ‘compulsory’.
The public sector could seek partnerships with the private sector to deliver education at the middle to high school level. This could be done in a number of ways. Vouchers could be provided to deserving students to enrol themselves at the nearest appropriate-level private school. This would keep education free for the child and would facilitate access. The public sector could encourage private entrepreneurs to open up schools in areas that are underserved. Or it could support expansions for existing schools. The problem here is the same as in the public sector. The number of middle and high schools in the private sector is also small. And the schools are also located in larger population hubs. Getting the private sector to increase the number of middle and high schools is going to be costly and will also be contingent on the availability of teachers in the relevant areas.
Technology-mediated interventions might provide a way out for the interim, unless new schools are opened and upgradation programmes up to speed. We now have high-quality curricula and testing material. This material can easily be digitised if it is not already in that form. We can deliver the material to students in a reasonably cost-effective manner through computers and tablets. We can even provide some tutoring support to these students online through phones and even in person if we employ local teachers to work with specific pupils. So, all of the ingredients are there. We need to design some pilots, but we could, actually, devise interesting, effective and efficient delivery mechanisms for ensuring that all students have access to good quality material and support to ensure that they do not flounder. But, this is clearly not a permanent substitute for the schooling experience itself. But it could be an effective stopgap arrangement.
The new frontiers in education in Pakistan are about how many students, especially girls, complete middle and high school, and about the quality of education that is being imparted. As we near the general election, maybe the above ideas can seep into conversations on education as well as in party manifestos.
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, March 9th, 2018