DESPITE its lush forests, golden beaches and ancient temples, for me the most inspiring sight in Sri Lanka are the thousands of boys and girls in crisp uniforms walking to and from their schools across the island twice a day.

I never fail to be impressed by the fact that apart from uniforms, the government supplies children with textbooks and meals. Even during the height of the civil war, the Tamil Tigers were provided with funds from Colombo to run the schools in the area under their control.

Being a regular visitor to the country for many years now, I have never seen a child begging, cleaning car windshields at traffic lights, selling newspapers or working in any menial jobs. These are, of course, common sights in Pakistan. The result of this concerted, non-partisan effort in education over the years is that Sri Lanka has a literacy rate of 92 per cent.

Even though it has a significantly higher GDP per capita than Pakistan, Sri Lanka is very much a developing country. In addition, it has just ended a civil war that raged for over 25 years. Nevertheless, it has found the resources to finance a system that gives access to education to all its children.

Pakistan, by contrast, has seen spending on education drop from 2.5 per cent of GDP to 1.5 per cent last year. This is less than the subsidies given to Pakistan Steel, PIA and Pepco. As this newspaper wrote in an editorial recently, we spend seven times more on defence than we do on primary education. Needless to say, our bloated defence budget has not made us any more secure. On the other hand, even a year's education for girls would result in a 10 per cent drop in fecundity. This would translate into a proportional fall in our frighteningly high population growth rate.

Even among the children who are lucky enough to go to school, the level of academic attainment is depressingly low: only 34 per cent of kids between six and 16 can read a story, while 50 per cent can read a sentence. Part of the reason for this dismal performance is that on any given day, 10-15 per cent of the teachers are absent. Thirty thousand school buildings pose a hazard to the students who are forced to study there, while 21,000 schools have no buildings at all. Education Emergency Pakistan

Many of these facts are available in the report .

But over the years, we — rulers and ruled alike — have been aware of the dire state of education in Pakistan. What has been lacking is not money, but political will. Indeed, provincial governments are generally unable to spend their meagre educational budgets. Bureaucratic inefficiency is as rife here as it is across the government. Provincial education departments are manned by some of the least efficient civil servants in the land. Education Emergency EE

Education ministers in the provinces are alleged to routinely demand a bribe for hiring teachers, and thus we end up getting the dregs of the product of a dilapidated system. Hence the rotten quality of the education our children receive. To dispel the notion that our school teachers are underpaid, () informs us that they receive more than teachers of low-cost private schools get. EE

Another urban myth demolished by is that a considerable proportion of Pakistani kids go to madressahs: only six per cent are educated — if we can call it that — at religious schools. Nevertheless, one out of 10 children not going to school around the world is a Pakistani.

Having a largely uneducated population imposes a huge cost, dragging the economy down and locking us into a spiral of low growth and unending poverty. The economic cost of ignorance and illiteracy is equivalent to a disastrous flood every year. Even Bangladesh, a much poorer country than Pakistan, is improving twice as fast as we are.

What makes our elites so blind to the obvious? In a word, selfishness. Their kids go to private schools and, if they can afford it, universities abroad. If they can't, they are educated at one of Pakistan's private colleges and universities. So they just don't care how bad the state system is. Similarly, they get medical care at private clinics and hospitals, and have therefore allowed government institutions to deteriorate to the point of collapse. The problem with this 'I'm OK, Jack' approach is that no society can develop without an educated population. With only a tiny percentage of children getting a decent education, there is no way Pakistan can progress and prosper. While even our dysfunctional elites see the problem, they are unwilling to do anything about it.

While a few of them support NGOs and charities that provide education to the needy, the magnitude of the task is such that only the state can provide the resources and the policies to achieve universal education. Thus far, it has shown no sign of either wanting, or being able, to bring about this revolution.

And yet, we aren't asking the government to do anything it isn't required to: constitutionally, all children between six and 16 are supposed to be provided an education. This pledge is reiterated in the 18th Amendment. Indeed, a citizen could, in theory, take the government to court for dereliction of duty. Suo moto action, Mr Chief Justice?

Perhaps we need to face up to the fact that our state machinery simply isn't up to the task of running our educational system. Even if by some miracle, enough resources were made available tomorrow, it just cannot get the school buildings (the responsibility of provincial Public Works Departments, a byword for corruption), recruit good teachers, modernise the curricula, or monitor the system for quality. So what's the answer? One possibility is that private schools could be paid directly by the state for each child on their rolls. Textbooks would be provided by a central agency, while another sets exams, and checks for standards before schools can get their funding. True, this system would be open to misuse and corruption. But anything might be better than the abysmal state education we have now.


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