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Hollow rhetoric bordering on the worthless has been the unfortunate reality of Pakistan politics — both of the civil and the khaki variety, mind you. Once in power, Pakistanis behave like a nation with a standard code of practice regardless of their leanings and orientations. The propensity for rhetoric cuts across all divides, and the education sector gets its due share from this pool of junk that is churned out in the name of policy-making, vision-defining statements.

Recently, it dawned on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti that “spreading light of education is the only solution to current challenges”. He went on to enumerate the projects his government had started to ‘spread the light’ — a cadet college and a university in Swat, 40 colleges across the province, upgrading hundreds of primary, middle and high schools, plans to soon have a cadet college in Laki Marwat, a university of Charsadda, and to have sub-campuses of Mardan-based Abdul Wali Khan University in Charsadda, Nowshera, Swabi, Buner, Dir and Chitral, and two programmes, Stori Da Pakhtunkhwa and Rokhana Pakhtunkhwa, to encourage intelligent students and extend educational facilities to every area.

The list is surely impressive on all counts … only if we could ‘spread the light of education’ through buildings and paperwork. As things stand today — and, as we know, they have been standing that way for long — spreading the light of education, far from being a solution to current challenges, is itself a massive current challenge.

The National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) recently estimated the number of out-of-school children to be 17 million. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) puts the number at 20 million. Horrible they may well be, the numbers might not be found too relevant for they relate to the whole country, and not just to KP. For a view of the chasm that separates rhetoric from reality, let’s return to the province and see if we can find something more relevant.

This is the time of the year when the academic year comes to an end and the new one begins to take shape. One vignette each would suffice. According to published reports, the new academic year has caught the elementary and secondary education (E&SE) department unprepared in the province as some textbooks are not available to students of higher grades. “Shortage of books is common in private schools, while the government schools have been facing deficiency of some books in grades nine, eight and seven,” principals of private and public sector schools have been quoted as saying. The principals said they were trying to retrieve books from old students and hand them over to the students promoted to the new classes, but they could not do anything about the books of subjects whose courses had been changed.

You see, how easy it is to open colleges and universities as well as their campuses and sub-campuses, but how difficult it is to get the books published even though everyone, including the chief minister, knows a year in advance when they would be required. This happens every year and causes irritation and frustration to the students and their parents who keep returning to the bookshops to check if the books have finally arrived, and translates into lost study hours. However, as far as the chief minister is concerned, it does not apparently cause any hindrance to the process of “spreading the light of education”.

Let’s move over to the other side. A number of government school teachers are said to be involved in the marking of grade 10 exam papers even though they have no teaching experience of the relevant subjects. According to published and uncontested accounts, teachers of Urdu language are checking papers of the English language. The students are likely to suffer when irrelevant teachers would check their papers because proper evaluation is just not possible in such a scenario. And this is happening in Peshawar, which happens to be the seat of the provincial government and, indeed, the chief minister who is so keen on “spreading the light of education”.

One of the officials said on condition of anonymity that teachers who had “strong connections” in the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE) Peshawar, were given the duty of checking papers irrespective of whether they knew the subject or not. “Such teachers often seek help from paper guides to check the papers,” he said.

This naturally is in addition to the general trend among teachers to avoid going into the details of the answer script and to award marks relying on style and length of the written material. That is why students take so many pointers and markers of various colours to ‘brighten up’ the script with ornamental headings, sub-headings and underlining to attract the eye of the examiner. What one writes below that headline often becomes redundant for the examiner doesn’t bother reading it.

As you can see, it is so easy to “spread the light of education”, but it is so difficult to take administrative decisions that may not be in outright contravention of logic and common sense.