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Beyond lip-service

November 15, 2012

IT has been argued that if one were to look for a starting point that has led Pakistan to the woeful place where it is today, it may be lack of education. Alongside the low literacy levels, the curricula, the lack of oversight and the knowledge base of even those who have been to school have continued to be called into question. The challenges faced by the country on this front are myriad and multi-dimensional and begin from the general lack of infrastructure. A population skewed heavily towards the young features low enrolment and high dropout rates, with one in every 10 out-of-school children in the world being Pakistani. Add to this a worsening economic climate which forces parents to keep their children out of school, and the targeting of schools by terrorists, and it is hardly surprising that, as a study undertaken last year estimated, there are 26 countries poorer than Pakistan, but that send more children to school.

Fortunately, though, in the recent past there have been a couple of developments that give some hope. As a consequence of the 18th Amendment, Article 25-A of the constitution directs the state to provide “free and compulsory education” to children aged between five and 16 years. And on Tuesday, the National Assembly adopted the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2012 — it has already been passed by the Senate — and called upon the provinces to adopt similar bills. The legislation has worthy features, including infrastructure development and teacher training, stricter regularisation of private schools and punishment for employers who do not send children working for them to school. There is no denying that much would improve if the country could educate its children.

As usual, though, the devil lies in the detail. Has the state the will to undertake the change in mindset that is necessitated to put every child in school? To put every child in school, we would immediately have to see teachers being trained and schools being built on virtually every street. We would need a countrywide strategy to reduce the need for children to work, or for their parents to keep them out of school for other reasons, to create employment opportunities for matriculates or incentives for further education, and to install an educational net that embraces all children, everywhere. And doing that would require far more spending — by some estimates six or more per cent — than the 1.7 per cent of the GDP currently being spent. So, the question then becomes one of political will. Is the state willing to put its money where its mouth is?