What children learn

01 Feb 2011


IF the knowledge of schoolchildren in Pakistan had not been assessed independently before, the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) Pakistan 2010 would have come as a bombshell.

We have known a lot of what has been recorded in this report, which was produced by the South Asian Forum for Education Development and Idara-i-Taalim-o-Agahi with remarkable mobilisation of the youth in the regions covered.

The National Education Assessment System (NEAS) and Learning and Educational Achievements in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) have carried out similar exercises before and, unsurprisingly, have arrived at similar conclusions: children are not learning in school what they are expected to know. ASER also says this about children’s knowledge of the subjects tested — Urdu/Sindhi, English and arithmetic.

The proof of the pudding is in its eating, it has rightly been said. Will ASER be able to sustain this annual survey to provide a benchmark for educators to determine the learning output of their investment in this vital sector? ASER’s significance will also be determined by its success in nudging policymakers in using its findings as a guideline to draw up realistic plans. It is up to the government to use the information provided by ASER intelligently to affect a change in the education system. Sadly, the political will needed to overhaul education in Pakistan is missing.

At the report’s launch last Thursday, panellists spoke of the importance of measures to improve learning outcomes in school. Most of what was said is valid. The accessibility of schools needs to be increased, teachers need to be trained, headmasters must be made accountable for their schools’ performance. The private sector must be inducted as a partner in public-sector education.

But the key question that remained unanswered was: how will this be done? We know that simply putting all children in school is not enough. They may never learn anything there if improvements are not made in related areas such as school management, pedagogy, curricula and textbooks.

This exercise has, however, highlighted some facts that deserve careful consideration. I will pick on only four. The most important is the inability of our students to communicate — that is the case with students even from the best of private schools in urban areas.

ASER found the reading skills of students poor. It tested their comprehension just in English. I am not sure how much children understand the local languages either. Since writing and speaking skills were not assessed, one cannot draw definitive conclusions on students’ ability to communicate.

The latest teaching methodologies require students to ‘construct’ knowledge through a participatory approach. Can they do it when their language and communication skills are so poor? Our children are not learning to express themselves in any language. That explains the rote learning culture in all schools.

Another extremely worrying finding that has not drawn much attention is the very high ratio of children going in for paid tuition. Nearly 14 per cent of the children surveyed in rural Pakistan — 25 per cent in private schools — pay for after-school tuitions. Why? Is it a fad? Or has pedagogy deteriorated so much that a child of normal intelligence cannot learn in class and needs extra tutoring? Or has corruption eaten to the core of the teaching profession to the extent that teachers neglect their responsibilities in the classroom and perform somewhat better only when they draw monetary gains from private tutoring. The malaise is deeper in the private sector.

Another finding that should prompt the Sindh government to study this report very closely is the shocking disclosure that Sindh’s performance in every area is abysmal. Its children are uniformly at the bottom rung of the ladder in reading (Urdu/Sindhi), English and arithmetic. Even Balochistan, which was once considered the most backward of all regions (its enrolment figures are still the lowest), has forged ahead in the learning outcomes of the children who are enrolled. Azad Kashmir, the newly created province of Gilgit-Baltistan and even Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been in the grip of violence, have shown better results than Sindh.

How would one account for it? Asad Sayeed, an academic and one of the panellists, was spot on when he spoke of the politicisation of the school system in Pakistan. Our schools serve as polling stations — that is fair enough. But there is no reason why the school staff should be engaged for election duties. This practice corrupts the education infrastructure as it provides the government the opportunity to induct loyalists in school faculties to ensure favourable results in polls. And the fact is that loyalists do not make good or honest teachers. Their priority is to serve their political masters. As one of the biggest employers, the education department is always under pressure to choose between merit and political loyalties. It is ironic that the ruling party has made the wrong choice in the province that constitutes its power base. In the process, it is destroying education in rural Sindh.

One positive finding in ASER, that should prove to be a challenge for a government that cares, is that the 20 per cent of out-of-school children (they include drop-outs and those who never enrolled) have competencies that should not be ignored. An inclusive approach is needed to bring these children into the school system. This was attempted by the Junejo government in the ’80s under the Nai Roshni scheme that met a sorry end, not because it was inherently flawed but because no one was interested.

A similar programme that has succeeded is being run quietly on a small scale by Saira Zaidi of the Infaq Foundation’s Teachers’ Training Centre. She picks up out-of-school girls from the neighbouring goths in Korangi, builds on their competencies and helps them pass their Matriculation after four years of tutoring. Some have gone on to do their BEd.