It is more than certain that Pakistan is unlikely to achieve the Dakar Framework of 2000 Education for All (EFA) goal of putting all children into school by 2015. Nearly seven million children in Pakistan are still out of school according to the latest Unesco Global Monitoring Report (GMR) 2012. Moreover, the 2012 GMR goes further by titling its current paper “Youth and Skills: Putting Education to work”. The focus of the GMR is that apart from literacy and numeracy, this century needs its youth bulge to be skillfully and gainfully employed for a more equitable, stable and peaceful world.

However, a number of studies done over the past 20 years including household surveys such as ASER point to a more worrisome phenomenon in Pakistani schools concerning learning levels. One World Bank study (2006) alarmingly indicates that “close to one-half of the three million born in Pakistan will leave school unable to add, subtract, multiply or divide; unable to read and write simple sentences in Urdu; and unable to read a short word like ‘BALL’ in English.”

Likewise, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focus on universal primary education and gender parity in enrollments of boys and girls but are equally silent on learning and competency. This is a gap to be addressed because in many countries including India and Pakistan, average levels of learning are at the bottom of the international chart.

Much has been written about the education system in Pakistan failing to provide a solid, equitable and qualitative learning environment. So much so that a ‘complete overhaul’ of the system is advised and recommended by all. Over the years, reforms and policies tinkering with upgrading education in the country have failed to make a viable difference in any concerned area.

Universal primary education is still a dream as more than half drop out before reaching class five. Higher Education has received massive funding to boost university education with a four-year BS degree instituted to match international standards. Yet, the experience of learning through a ‘reading list’ for assignments and using the library is not the preferred style of learning for the undergraduate degree. There are specified books for a course that a student can consult and take his/her examination rather like the one textbook used for BA classes earlier.

Learning through dialogue, debate and discussion is still a rare occurrence in colleges. Middle and secondary schooling continues to be an exercise in rote learning as teachers are not trained to make students use their reasoning, analytic and evaluative abilities.

In a class ridden education system where those who can pay the fees can access an education, putting education to work can be a lost cause altogether. The vision for an academic education is preferred for all students who will go on to do their Masters and Doctorates although a sizeable number are not endowed to be lifelong learners. Many will drop out of the academic stream and be unskilled to retain a decent job.

Last but not least, Pakistan’s educational policies show total disregard for providing a literate population which reads books and newspapers by ignoring the language issue. English is conceivably still a language for the elite in Pakistan despite efforts to make it accessible to all. However, its teaching and learning is more by rote learning thus making its fluency beyond the reach of the common man. The worrying part is that the low educational standards now dictate that the common man can also not enjoy the benefits of basic reading and writing in the vernacular as studies indicate that children are equally disadvantaged in Urdu as in English.

The continuous confusion has resulted in a ‘no one language base’ for Pakistanis and Urdu which should be the mainstay of language ability has retreated in the face of “Teach English” as part of global interaction but its standardised teaching and learning is not up to par.

EFA requires enrollment and retention of students into schools but improving educational outcomes remains one of the key challenges for Pakistan. Teachers are the key players in the classroom and it is the kind of learning that takes place in classrooms that teachers have to be cognizant of. There is still no mechanism in place for certification of teachers to enter the profession with a basic knowledge of educational literature. Teachers continue to be hired on the basis of experience rather than ability or motivation. A number of studies reiterate that teacher effort is a primary factor in determining better learning outcomes in the more successful schools.

Furthermore, the poor standards in the mushrooming low income private schools across the board and the failure of the public sector schools to raise standards has resulted in “tuition” becoming a norm for all income groups. Even those who cannot afford to put their children into school because of socio-economic factors relying on ‘tuitions’ to make their children literate.

Enrollment and retention do not guarantee actual learning in the classroom. Learning levels are low and language acquisition has no solid base in classrooms across Pakistan. What is needed is a revamp of educational goals targeting the youth for learning skills with a solid base in literacy, numeracy and reading ability. Elementary through to matriculation is where motivated, able and creative teachers can make the difference because the present and coming generations of Pakistan will set the tone for its progress and stability. Educationists and policy makers in Pakistan must realise that the malaise in the system is now a ‘free for all’ where anything goes in educating young and impressionable minds and culture and heritage take a backseat to a flawed understanding of ‘English Medium’ learning.

The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore