Why Shahid cannot read

August 27, 2011

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Zubeida Mustafa writes about the deficiencies of the public sector education system

Shahid, my driver, is not educated. He is not even literate and can barely recognise the alphabets and numbers. On the other hand, Shahid is very intelligent and can connect the wires of my computer correctly; he also maintains the engine of my car pretty well. One day I asked Shahid why he didn’t study when his parents sent him to school in his childhood. With a technological bent of mind, he could have done so well in life.

He explained that the government school he went to was barely functional. He and his friends did not have much to do since the teacher never showed up. Getting bored they would slip out to go on a jaunt round the city until they were discovered one day and sent to work.

This is the story of millions of Shahids around Pakistan. The high dropout rates from schools testify to that. By playing truant they are not losing anything that others like them who stay on in school are gaining. Those who attend government schools regularly do not learn much either. The grim state of the public sector schools in Pakistan is such that earlier this year the government was forced to declare an education emergency.

This has not changed the situation much. The teachers are not qualified to teach, as many of them are political appointees awarded a job by the party in office. The environment is not conducive to learning either. Nearly a third of the schools lack the physical infrastructure, such as classrooms, boundary walls, water, electricity supply and latrines, leave aside furniture, necessary to make them institutions for learning.

This collapse of the public school system is Pakistan’s biggest tragedy. This was not the case before when government schools functioned pretty well. Many decades ago, before the malaise set in, the major challenge was that of access. Not all children were enrolled in schools because there were not enough of them around to meet the growing needs of a rapidly expanding population. The government was not investing as much in the social sectors as it should have if the country was to develop.

In 1972, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s PPP government launched its school nationalisation programme and enhanced the education budget in a bid to take education to the masses. Although, in principle the policy could not be faulted, its shoddy implementation struck a severe blow to the existing system.

Efforts to undo the ills of nationalisation brought the curse of commercialisation in their wake which stratified the system and resulted in a big divide from which it could never recover. Now they have to go to private upscale schools that charge hefty fees and give good education only to their students who sit for O-Level exams, while the have nots either go to government schools, which have little to offer, or the low-fee private schools that do teach but not at all satisfactorily; their students appearing for the local boards’ examinations where cheating is rampant and standards are poor.

It is a pity that this is happening at a time when awareness has grown and parents want to send their offspring to school. When they can’t it only results in frustration and discontent. Worse still, the class-based system perpetuates the impoverishment and backwardness of the poor. The children attending government schools and the low-level private schools cannot compete with the children of the affluent for the pricy jobs that are available but not in abundance. This has become a vicious cycle: poverty leads to poor education and poor education denies the children good jobs which mean they remain mired in poverty. Social justice calls for this cycle to be broken and this is possible only if good education is made universal.