Ringing the alarm bells

30 Mar 2011


AT long last some in the government have belatedly woken up to, what they term, the education emergency in Pakistan. The emergency is not new. What is new is the realisation (?) in official quarters that we face a crisis.

The co-chairperson of the Pakistan Education Task Force (PETF) Shahnaz Wazir Ali has therefore launched a campaign exhorting people to march for education and sign a petition “to force Pakistan’s leaders to finally get serious about providing every child with a decent school and a committed teacher”. She wants to collect 10,000 signatures — not such an impossible figure and we are still far from it.

In a dramatic presentation we are informed that 25 million children are out of school in Pakistan. One may add that few of those who are enrolled receive quality education. The physical infrastructure is appalling and the state of pedagogy is dismally shocking.

Ms Wazir Ali’s main goal is to pressure the prime minister and the chief ministers to get their act together and protect education budgets in these times of fiscal crisis. Her co-chair, Sir Michael Barber, had promised in an article nine months ago that “This time it will be different”. We are still waiting for the difference. In an article in the ‘Economic and Business Review’ of this paper, Yousuf Nazar, an economist, informs us that the government is spending “seven times more on arms than on primary schools”.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the state of education in Pakistan when all we have are loud words and little action. This campaign itself may prove to be one of those expensive but futile exercises we have witnessed before. We are told that the activities will start by “ringing the alarm bell before beginning to explore the education emergency”. But enough is already known about the emergency. It is an insult to our intelligence that the education managers have no programme of action to offer. The only concrete point identified is the need for funds — a goal of four per cent of GDP has been set.

But academics think differently. Isa Daudpota, a university professor, points out, “The solution is not to have more schools or have more money thrown at a rotting system. We ought to totally overhaul our system to arrive at a new one that can perform better under current financial constraints, which will remain.” It is true that pouring in more money without creating the capacity and restructuring the system will only open new avenues for corruption that is already rife in the education sector.

One is not too reassured when one reads the pamphlet, ‘The Politics of Education Reform’, posted on the website of Education Emergency. It squarely places the blame for making Pakistan an anti-education state on Pakistan’s political and military elites.

It says that the power wielders depend “on the distribution of patronage to sustain, deepen and build power. The state offers a deep pool of resources that can be distributed as patronage…. [It] is distributed indirectly, mostly through the provision of jobs. Since the largest pool of employment is in education, teachers have become the primary beneficiaries of elite patronage. And in such a system, it is only natural that the primary victims become the children that are entrusted to such teachers”. Naturally these teachers cannot be held accountable because they have powerful backers.

This was confirmed by the Sindh education secretary in a seminar in Karachi the other day where she painted a dreary picture of the state of education in the province saying she had to deal with thousands of applications for jobs. She also informed us that 85 per cent of the education budget of the province goes on salaries and the teachers are quite well-paid.

What is disappointing is that the march for education campaign does not specify a practical strategy apart from enunciating the theory of change with the political leadership being entrusted with the task of creating the conditions for change. It also warns of the “barrier in people’s heads” that can obstruct any progress. Both are myths. Political leaders are pro status quo and do not want to relinquish their privileges. They are the ones who create barriers and frustrate the people’s aspirations to educate their children.

What we need at the moment is to generate a momentum for education. Presuming that the patrons of this campaign have the political will to reverse the slide, they should carefully select some strategic regions in every province to concentrate their efforts on.

These regions should be made into models with the idea of creating in them a critical mass for education. The idea would be for these areas to sustain the momentum thus generated, as happens in nuclear physics. Human behaviour also follows a similar pattern.

This strategy would not require a massive increase in resources. It would, however, call for political integrity, parents’ participation and professionalism. Political leaders should do us the favour of adopting a hands-off policy vis-à-vis the selected regions which should be declared no-go zones for politics.

In other words, no jobs should be given on political grounds in these regions. Only teachers with merit and mobilising qualities should be appointed. They and their supervisors should be held accountable for any lapses. They will be provided on the job training while the parents will be mobilised to monitor the working of their children’s schools. This might make a difference this time.