THE Annual Status of Education Report 2011 (ASER) — the second in a row — that was launched last week should be an eye-opener for those who do not know much about how the children of the ‘other’ learn.

In a country where even the decennial census cannot be held on time for fear of the truth being exposed, credit should be given to the group of courageous educationists who undertook this massive exercise to assess the knowledge of our schoolchildren.Surveying 146,874 children (three- to 16-year-olds) in 84 rural and three urban districts, ASER 2011 is fairly representative and comprehensive. It also compiles data on access and the physical infrastructure of schools while judging the students’ learning outcomes. It yields a wealth of information that can be put to good use by the authorities when drawing up policies and introducing legislation on the right to education under Article 25-A.

The poor learning levels of children in language and arithmetic should really surprise no one. We have known this for over seven years when the federal ministry of education set up NEAS (the National Education Assessment Service) with foreign funding to assess the children in public schools.

ASER has gone a step further to include private-sector institutions within its purview. We are told that 52.6 per cent of children completing the primary (Grade 5) level are not able to read simple Grade 2 stories in Urdu or their mother tongue, while 59.4 per cent in the same category cannot read simple Grade 2 level sentences in English and 62.7 per cent of children completing primary are not able to do simple three-digit division.

This is pretty alarming. It confirms that the millions being spent on the school sector are going down the drain. Given the fact that 50 per cent of the students drop out during the transition from the primary to secondary level, one can presume that the teenagers with minimal reading skills lapse into illiteracy soon after leaving school. Small wonder we remain a nation that is preponderantly unlettered.

This points to the numerous flaws in our educational planning and strategy that are apparently not being addressed. The main problem lies with the quality of teachers, who it is now clear, are not appointed on merit. With the education department having become one of the largest public-sector employers in the country, it is now being used to dole out jobs to reward party loyalists who could never have got selected on academic merit. It also ensures that during elections, the teaching staff that serves as returning officers in the schools that are polling centres will not let their party down.

All the other evils identified by the ASER survey stem from the absence of dedicated teachers. Take low enrolment rates. In the rural areas, 80 per cent of the children aged five to 16 years enrol in school (of them only a third are girls) but nearly a quarter of them go to private schools. Whatever the ills of the private sector, it still tries to recruit relatively committed teachers and makes arrangements to train them.

Teacher absenteeism is another deterrence. When the ASER teams visited schools, on an average 17 per cent of the teachers in the government institutions were absent when the figure for the private sector was 11 per cent. The teachers’ presence is a major factor in determining students’ enrolment and attendance. The ASER survey showed 85 per cent of the students in private schools were present on the day its teams visited when the corresponding figure for government schools was 79 per cent.

The biggest challenge education faces in Pakistan today is that a huge majority of children are first-generation school-goers in their family. ASER says that only 12 per cent of the mothers were found to be literate in the areas surveyed. This further enhances the burden of responsibility on the teacher. Where some extraordinary individuals have been mobilised, they have overcome this barrier and produced results. Unfortunately, they are few in number.

A positive trend to have emerged of late is that there is a widespread public demand for good education. Parents are no longer reluctant to educate their children, even girls. If children are still not enrolled, one has to look for factors such as inaccessibility of schools or the absence of toilets and other facilities that discourage parents from sending their offspring to school. In the urban areas where the physical infrastructure is better, female enrolment is higher and ASER found the girls to be doing better.

The poor performance of the teachers, even in private schools, has resulted in the evil of private tuition. Whether this is to be attributed to ineptitude or corruption it is not easy to say. If teachers do their job well why should the average child — with the exception of slow learners — need to be tutored privately?

The paradox is that more children attending private schools (30 per cent of Grade 10 students) where teachers supposedly perform better, opt for paid tuitions compared to the 15 per cent in government schools. The fact is that teachers, especially in government schools, are not working conscientiously. They neglect their work and then give private coaching after school hours for a heavy fee.

Many problems can be fixed if the role of the teachers is re-evaluated and corrective measures taken. Their pedagogy, knowledge, motivation, integrity and mobilisation are severely flawed.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

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