THE 2019 Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) launched recently is the ninth in the series. No other knowledge assessment exercise in Pakistan of this nature has been so sustained. Though there was a gap, its overall performance has still been good. It serves as a reliable yardstick to measure the quality of learning in the country especially in the rural areas where the majority of the population lives.
It is a pity that the authorities do not feel the need to audit their own performance. Nor do they feel compelled to look for solutions to the problems identified by Aser.
The document, which reproduces some important findings from the last five reports, records slow and uneven progress. School enrolment has grown from 79 to 83 per cent since 2014, though not evenly across the country. But as Baela Raza Jamil, the CEO of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi, who flagshipped Aser, warns, “there is little room for complacency”. And all would agree.
It broke my heart to see Sindh, my province, at the lowest rung of the education ladder. As many as 56.2pc of Grade 5 children cannot read a story in Urdu/Sindhi, while for 73.4pc, even a sentence in English is beyond their reading ability. Numbers are daunting for these children, 69.5pc of whom could not cope with arithmetic.
No political will is evident to address the education crisis.
Aser’s work is superb, but its efforts are going to waste as they have failed to be a call for action. No political will is evident in official quarters to seriously address this stupendous learning crisis. That is the real need of the hour today.
What do we witness instead? Rapid changes in the education department. For instance, Sindh’s new education secretary is the seventh in a month. The education minister — holding the additional portfolio of labour — is the third since 2018. Can these worthy gentlemen who made their debut very recently be expected to have any clue of what is needed?
They are trying to ensure that all teachers are in school punctually. Good. But are the teachers really teaching? More importantly, are all of them capable of teaching? It is time it was realised that teachers’ presence can ensure the students’ attendance to some extent, but that by itself will not raise educational standards.
Only good teachers who are conscientious and report for duty regularly besides having knowledge of their subject and being trained in pedagogy can produce results. All three elements should be there in abundance. Ever since schools were nationalised in 1972, excellence in teaching was thrown to the wind, at least in Sindh.
Shehzad Roy did the right thing by adopting a teachers training college in Karachi to address the learning crisis. In the two schools he has adopted, his organisation called Zindagi Trust has recruited good teachers to reinforce the existing staff he inherited. The old one was by and large retained, but is being trained intensively by professional trainers of the trust. But Shehzad Roy’s approach — a very rational one — will take years before it even begins to make an impact.
Then what is the way forward? I pose this question to Baela Raza Jamil. She promptly replies, “We need a learning revolution.” This entails what she calls “learning solutions by non-state organisations working on a single platform”. This would be a radical approach — as it would take away the initiative from the government, which would be required to pay for these solutions. Baela rattles off their names. Several of these are well known and are doing excellent work supported by solid research. But they would be reaching out to not more than 2,000 schools when there are 150,000 schools in Pakistan.
The need is to upscale these initiatives which would help reduce their cost when applied in massive numbers. But these are at best shortcuts that have to be adopted if the crisis is to be addressed.
The fact is that there is no substitute for good teachers. Hence, the focus must also be on teachers’ training on an ongoing basis that is absolutely essential and must be made mandatory for all teachers. If it is not considered too radical, Aser should consider testing the teachers as well. At present, information about their qualifications is collected, but their high qualifications mean nothing — the rot in the education system has affected the teacher-training sector as well. The concept of lifelong learning and periodic testing of teachers needs to be introduced in Pakistan’s school education system.
All this calls for massive funds. But procuring funds should not pose a challenge because Pakistan is notorious for not utilising its education budgetary allocations fully and allowing huge amounts to lapse year after year. Aser’s 2019 report should be treated as a wake-up call. One hopes all provinces, especially Sindh, will take note of it.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2020