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Questioning ‘education for all’

July 29, 2012

The hardworking and enthusiastic Mohammad Arslan is one among hundreds of trainees that work at workshops all over the country. He has a reason to be excited.

“All of my colleagues and friends are in class nine now – see how worthless their life is? I am about to become a maestro in one year,” said Arslan, a trainee learning to repair radiators.

After failing to get through class six, his schoolteachers decided to give him a promotion on the grounds that “Arslan was a gifted child with extraordinary intelligence but would cover it up by not working hard in class seven.”

But, then again, Arslan’s daily routine in Jhang district, his native home, consisted of getting beaten by teachers, engaging in fights with other boys, and scolded at home.

“My maternal grandfather brought me here and got me into learning this radiator job,” Arslan said when speaking about his future pans, which includes establishing a shop in another two years.

“After matric they will be doing nothing while I establish my own setup.  I am already learning how to deal with clients nowadays,” he said.Similarly, another trainee also named Mohammad Arslan, is learning to be an auto mechanic at the market behind I-9 police station, and has arrived in Islamabad from Sialkot district after clearing class nine.

“When I came here from the village in Shakarghar, I could not even spell the word ‘cat.’ Now, I can even read the labels of various spare parts,” he said.

While everything seems to be fine for hundreds of youngsters learning different trades of auto mechanics, there is a hidden threat looming overhead - the Pakistani Senate has recently passed a bill to provide free and compulsory education for all children aged between five and 16 years in the federal capital. The Bill also calls upon the relevant authorities to ensure that both boys and girls of migrant and non- Pakistani families attend school during this age.

A special law is being promulgated for Islamabad, as the education sector has devolved to the provinces after the 18th amendment was passed in Islamabad – the only place where health and education is still under the domain of the federal government.

If the bill is approved by the National Assembly, and is strictly implemented, there could be serious implications for society.

Hundreds of young boys work as trainees in various auto markets of Islamabad including I-9, G-7, G-6, Aabpara, G-10, F-10 and others. While scores more work as waiters and in the kitchens at local restaurants and hotels.

Under this bill, all these kids will have to be taken out of their jobs and put into schools and it will be the responsibility of the relevant government departments including the CDA and the capital administration to ensure that every child gets a free education.

When the law was discussed with auto mechanics and restaurant owners, they brushed it off like many other official statements.

“If the government cannot even implement the prices they announce, how they can achieve such a gigantic task?” asked Rashid Abbasi, a small restaurant owner at Aabpara. However, Mr Abbasi said in a more serious tone that boys working in hotels do not do it just for fun or because they cannot study, but they are there after serious consideration.

“All the employees we have here are my relatives, and the 14-year-old boy washing the dishes is my real nephew; one day he will open his own hotel,” he said,

“Apart from earning, the key is that we are keeping a vigilant eye on him and teaching him a valuable trade.” He also said even if his nephew is not able to establish a business of his own, he will be employed soon at the age of 18, because he knows all the ins and outs of this trade.

Many young children are forced to work because of difficult financial conditions, but almost everyone feels that education in itself will not help in any way. Even if these boys complete graduation, where would they find a white collar job?

Meanwhile, an official of the capital administration said it was a complicated issue, and a law that makes education compulsory for all children between five and 16 years of age is a very good step towards raising the nation’s standards.

“Still, the main problem is that we are always between yes and no – from one extreme to another,” the official said.

And the official was unsure how parents of beggars could be persuaded to send their children to school.

Going to school is not a serious concern in Islamabad, as the city and the rural areas have around 422 government schools where the fees are affordable,  and roughly 300 private schools - quite a few which have reasonably low fees.

One advocate of the Bill – Senator Saeeda Iqbal - said this is an effort to streamline the future of the next generation as highlighted in the constitution. However, she acknowledged that efforts are still needed to transform technical learning as a part of the formal system.

“These issues can be covered in the rules that are made after the law is passed,” she added.

An official of the city administration said that instead of simply labeling anybody who has completed a two year diploma a mechanic, there has to be a system where private students can take such technical exams and be certified as a mechanic of grade one, or any other level.

And so another law has been passed with not much indicating how it will be implemented or if it even can be implemented.