Education emergency

Published May 10, 2024
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

ON Wednesday, the prime minister announced an education emergency at a conference in Islamabad. Though post-18th Amendment, education has been a provincial subject, the prime minister said that the emergency was for the country and he would work with all provinces and chief ministers to ensure cooperation, compliance and follow-up. Representatives from the provinces were present at the conference.

About 26.2 million children between five and 16 years are out of school in the country. For those who are in school, most are provided with a poor quality of education. Access to quality education depends, almost exclusively, on parental income levels: if you have the income, you can get your child a decent quality of education. Otherwise, your child is either not in school, or enrolled in a government or low-fee private school. Most such schools provide poor quality education.

Article 25-A, which says that “free and compulsory” education would be provided to all five- to 16-year-olds in the country, was added to the basic rights section of our Constitution in 2010. Fourteen years later, we are declaring an emergency to do what we had promised our children in the Constitution as a basic right! In an earlier speech, the prime minister had called this criminal negligence. It is surely more than that.

The meaning of ‘emergency’, according to one dictionary, is “a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action”. The situation is definitely serious and dangerous as far as the state of education in the country is concerned. But it is not unexpected: it has been the result of decades of a deliberate and purposeful neglect of education.

The current situation is the result of the choices that we have made and are still making.

Even today, when international bodies recommend a minimum expenditure of four per cent of GDP on education, our government spends 1.7pc or so. The situation is also not unexpected, given that educationists, researchers, academics, civil society representatives, teachers, parents and children who have been talking of this neglect for years have not been heard. Every education policy of the past has also had aspirations to universalise education. We started off in the right direction with the first education conference held in 1947, but we have yet to universalise education. The current situation is the result of the choices that we, as a society, have made and are still making.

Given this, the bit on emergencies ‘requiring immediate action’ is the part that is yet to happen. While announcing the emergency, there was nothing about what steps would be taken to address the situation, what policy changes would take place, and when the state would invest more in education and how. When will all this start?

How will it be implemented? Who will monitor the implementation and ensure we move towards the goal of ‘access to quality education for all children’, and how do we ensure all this is not just rhetoric and that actual action will indeed follow?

The prime minister did say he will be monitoring the situation himself. It is good to have that level of commitment, but given the demands on a prime minister’s time, this might not work. It was also mentioned that there will be a ‘task force’ to look at issues of implementation. The task force, its mandate and power, its modus operandi, have not been announced as yet. Let us see when the follow-up happens.

Clearly, a lot of urgent and comprehensive work is needed if we are going to live up to our promises of providing access to quality education to all our children. If it takes the cloak of an emergency to do it, so be it. But the proof will be in the actions that start now, and in outcomes that are achieved as a result. Otherwise, it is all rhetoric and it will be another opportunity wasted.

There might not be one programme that all the governments follow. Given the varied conditions and circumstances across the provinces and the Islamabad Capital Territory, if governments have their own priorities in line with local conditions, this is not an issue. In fact, it is better this way, as local programming will create local buy-in as well. But there has to be a clear declaration of priorities by all governments and, subsequently, the action plans they will follow.

Pakistan has some 100,000 schools in the public sector and more than 250,000 in total. Similarly, we have about 1m teachers in the public sector, and more than 2m teachers overall working in the education sector. We are still short of schools as well as teachers. So, we are talking of a very large system here. Reform of a large system or change in a large system will require large and deep interventions. Small initiatives here and there, as governments have been taking in education for quite some time, are not going to be enough to address the issue of 26.2m out-of-school children or the quality of education issues for the millions who are in schools.

We need more schools, teachers and classes; we need to revamp our assessment and examination systems; we need to redo our curricula and books; we need to upgrade teaching skills and content knowledge of teachers; we need better governance structures in the public sector.

All this and more needs to be done at scale and quickly. This will require more resources and it will require a lot of focus on prioritising and coordinating. And it will need high levels of competence as well. By invoking an emergency, the prime minister has said he is putting his weight behind all this. Let us see if this is anything more than rhetoric.

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

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2024

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