Education in a quandary

April 18, 2012


IN today’s age “of the one per cent, for the one per cent, and by the one per cent” (to quote Joseph Stiglitz) to seek equality — especially in education — amounts to looking for utopia.

Therefore the South Asian Forum for Educational Development, Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi (ITA), and other partners were brave to have ‘quality-inequality quandary’ as the theme of the regional seminar they organised in Lahore earlier this month. The idea was to get proposals to resolve this quandary.

Given the daunting agenda and the diverse participation, it was hardly surprising that no solution could be found. The theme implied that practices and policies would be identified to lift the standards of education for the poorest of the poor institutions to bring them at par with the best where the children of the privileged study. Research sharing at the regional level should facilitate this task.

This amounted to seeking equality on an issue which is the major dividing factor in society itself. With the chasm between the haves and the have-nots continuously widening and the state refusing to take responsibility for education — Article 25-A notwithstanding — there is no hope that the playing field can be levelled for all.

Hence the seminar’s achievement was limited to identifying many measures that would, if implemented, raise the quality of education in the weaker public sector and low-cost private sector educational institutions. But inequality would remain because generally the disparity between the elite schools and the poorly performing government institutions is not recognised as the problem per se. It stratifies society and allows the wealthy the privilege of merit to grab all the good jobs.

Since this equality is bound to be elusive when the entire system is geared to promote the power of the one per cent, the next best option is to strive for raising the standards of the schools for the 99 per cent. But even this limited goal of upgrading standards appears to be a daunting one, given our inability to walk the talk.

The problem is that simply devising a system that does not factor the disadvantages the underprivileged suffer in life will not pay dividends. If we could somehow wave a magic wand and ensure identical inputs for all children in every school in all categories, the learning outcomes of the underprivileged children will improve but a wide gap would still remain.

This evil has perpetuated itself over such a long period of time in Pakistan that finding solutions becomes a frustrating exercise. Dr Iffat Farah, an education researcher, was spot on when she wrote in her summing up of the proceedings that the diversity in the learning levels remains unacknowledged. That results in inappropriate and uniform strategies being devised for addressing and responding to the varied needs of children.

The fact is that these diversities are born from the socioeconomic backgrounds of the children who are enrolled in school and their teachers. When children are undernourished and stunted and have not been exposed to a healthy and positive social environment that encourages mental and cognitive stimulation, they will not have the capacity to benefit optimally from good pedagogy and excellent textbooks even if these are offered to them in equal measure. In other countries where poverty is so rampant, governments have tried to counter the inherent weaknesses by introducing school programmes tailored to meet the needs of the poor.

So the regional seminar became an exercise focusing on the need to raise the quality of education in the schools of poor quality. Of course, this would bridge the gap a whit but the ideal of all schoolchildren being given equal opportunities for education will remain a pipedream.

It will not be wise to turn a blind eye to these inequities which are the creation of our own society. What is needed is greater integration of the various systems that exist parallel to one another. This can be done in several ways. By twinning schools, inducting teachers from government and low-fee schools traditionally known to be weak into high-quality training institutions, having a language in education policy that does not discriminate against the poor, making it mandatory for private-sector elite schools to enrol a specified ratio of students from the underprivileged classes without charging them a fee, and so on.

This would require all partners to agree to the principle of equity in education. We know very well that many of those present at the seminar do not really believe this to be a basic necessity. It would mean more stringent social controls on the private sector — not by pulling them back but by encouraging them to take the weaker sections of society along with them. Instead, we have the elite institutions becoming more and more exclusive as they raise their fees to the skies to become inaccessible to the majority.

Equity would also require the government to become accountable for its own institutions. But what we have is the mantra voiced by the education bureaucracy all over the country that civil society must take ‘ownership of the schools’. Public-private partnership programmes are now being promoted in a big way. But on the quiet the government is using them as a pretext to disengage itself from the education sector.

The contradictions are glaring. We now have Article 25-A in the constitution. The ITA is campaigning to collect a million signatures (346,547 collected so far) to demand a law to implement this right. Its stand is: “The legal framework must define how equity will be ensured for all children alike.”