THE new PPP slogan is indicative of the priority all political parties seem to have assigned education in the current elections. Emphasising ilm, or education, with “Roti, kapra aur makaan,” the age-old slogan’s latest iteration is now a poetic “Roti, kapra aur makaan; ilm, sehat, sab ko kaam”. (Bread, clothing and shelter; education, health and jobs for all.)

At first glance both the PPP and the PML-N manifestos seem to have certain aspects in common. They reiterate the promise of ensuring education for all, emphasise the need for improved facilities and quality in delivery.

Both parties go on to promise increasing education spending to a certain percentage of gross domestic product (four per cent for the PML-N and 5pc by 2025 for the PPP), highlighting the importance of equitable access for girls, introducing curriculum reform and hiring teachers on merit.

But in order to actually understand the road map laid out by the parties with respect to education, it is important to take a look at the challenges the country faces in this regard.

According to a report by the Academy of Educational Planning and Management (AEPAM), a subordinate office of the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, launched last Thursday, out of the total 51.53 million children between the ages of five and 16, as many as 22.84m or 44pc are out of school.

A major challenge for the country, therefore, is the reintegration of these children into the school system; a task that will require an innovative approach the likes of which have not been touched upon in the manifestos.

While primary schools are in abundance — a total of 150,129 in the country — there are a significantly lower number of middle and high schools (49,090 middle schools and only 31,551 high schools), compounding the problem of out-of-school children. Reintegration of this demographic requires a radical commitment on the part of policymakers, which is also not evident in the vision put forth.

Article 25-A of the Constitution talks about education being a basic right of the people. Both the PML-N and the PPP aim to achieve universal primary enrolment — the PML-N by 2023 — although how they intend to do so remains up in the air.

Even considering the PML-N’s farewell budget to be a precursor of its manifesto, no concrete steps have been identified for the implementation of the 100/100/100 programme.

The need for innovation in learning has consistently been emphasised by independent experts. Alif Ailaan, an education advocacy group, states in a report that “the development of local content and delivery mechanisms that excite children in and outside school needs to be institutionalised”.

The PML-N perhaps interprets innovation by promising to introduce computer labs in middle schools. The PPP, meanwhile, mentions the issue in broader terms by encouraging the use of technology in socio-economic learning and early learning education.

But the lack of substantial innovative learning practices and the mention of promoting math and science subjects have multi-layered, consecutive consequences that may hold back both parties’ eventual aim of growing the economy.

The report mentioned above states that “existing data shows a low learning baseline in math and science in addition to English and Urdu writing; a state of affairs which cannot be allowed to continue given the critical importance of these two subjects in developing human capital, and consequently, its link to the overall agenda of development”.

The PML-N states that it will take steps aimed at encouraging “industrial growth; removing economic barriers to education and meeting the demands of the growing industrial sector”. It plans to do so by developing adult literacy programmes, expanding need-based scholarship programmes and providing universal access to vocational training.

With regards to improved learning outcomes, the PPP intends to fall back upon its expertise in streamlining administrative processes: standardising teacher training, institutionalising processes for teacher education and curricula, autonomising textbook boards and creating a separate management and teacher training cadre in education departments.

The PML-N, meanwhile, mentions reforming assessment models and ensuring compliance with National Education Standards. What sets it apart though is its attempt to tie learning outcomes-based incentives for teachers’ career development, thereby addressing another challenge faced by the sector: ensuring quality after merit-based recruitment — tying teachers’ career planning to learning outcomes.

Despite the challenges mentioned above, the gains each province has made in education under the auspices of the three political parties so far must be acknowledged as investment in education does not show immediate results.

Sindh under the PPP focused on streamlining administrative processes that inhibit improvements and merit-based recruitment -- in the last five years, over 30,000 teachers have been recruited on merit by the Sindh education department.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under the PTI focused on fixing existing schools and their missing infrastructure while the PML-N surpassed all by managing to improve its school facilities, retention and enrolment rates and learning outcomes.

But in order for our labour in education to actually bear fruit, fundamental underlying assumptions in our policies must be challenged and a larger, more holistic vision needs to replace the one currently being put forth by those vying for power.

As Mosharraf Zaidi, an education activist, points out: “Why haven’t we seen transformational change yet? Because we don’t have political commitment. Each government has made tweaks in the system and there have been pockets where things have turned around, but until there is not a national feeling of urgency on the subject, unless we don’t reach the ‘tipping point,’ as Malcolm Gladwell put it, we won’t see transformational change.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 9th, 2018

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