Reforming the education sector will be a colossal challenge for the next governments at the centre and in the provinces, no matter what claims political parties make in their manifestos.
Some 23m children are out of school in Pakistan because governments have neglected education, even though free universal education from ages five to 16 years is a constitutional right.
Access to public schooling remains dependent on family income, geographical location and gender. Most children drop out by the age of nine; and girls from poor communities are least likely to attend school.
On top of this, Pakistan’s gender enrolment gap is the widest in South Asia after Afghanistan. If this election is to change the status quo, voters should elect representatives for their commitment to education.
In 2013, political parties, including the PPP, PTI and PML-N identified education reform as improving learning abilities, reducing teacher absenteeism and eliminating gender disparities in schooling among other issues. But the reforms undertaken have been a drop in the ocean.
While the PML-N government increased enrolment, gave stipends to girls, and pioneered merit-based teacher recruitment in Punjab, it failed to offer education expertise and resources to other provinces.
Although a part of the coalition government in Balochistan, it abandoned educational reforms in a province where 1.89m children remain out of school.
In KP, the PTI’s ambitious education policies showcased a first-time party’s keen intentions. But the trajectory starting out with promises towards implementation remained thorny.
A new government should focus on policy implementation improving learning scores, enrolment and retention in a province where 51pc of girls remain out of school despite budgets higher than the UN recommended 20pc baseline.
Meanwhile, for too long, the PPP-led Sindh government’s atrocious report card has needed attention, especially the concern of ‘ghost’ teachers and the wide gender gap.
In the 2018 manifestos, parties would do well to commit to bringing out-of-school children into the education system, indicating the duration, sustained reforms and budgets required to achieve the goal.
Only realistic goals and incentives are beneficial. Reforms vary countrywide which means policy consensus across party lines will provide opportunities to learn from best practices.
The major goals are to ensure that education spending is 4pc of GDP as stipulated by the UN, to improve resources for those students who gain the least, and to ensure schooling is not discontinued at any stage.
Replicating some successful public-private partnership school models seen in Punjab and Sindh can also be an election goal, as could regular reviews of district performances and ensuring accountability.
Nelson Mandela noted: “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” Only parties with a vision can understand the truth of his words and work towards implementing their promises.
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2018