THE predictions of those observing the education scene in Pakistan seem to be morphing from mental images into ground reality. Callous disregard for the welfare of the people combined with unhampered fecundity has resulted in an avalanche of unlettered and frustrated humans.
However, the crack in the wall of gloom is that our political parties seem to realise the need for urgent action. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) states in its manifesto that it will increase the budget for education from 2.1 to five per cent of GDP. The MQM has similar plans. The PML-N also underlines the need to improve education.
Our current allocation for education is lower than even Bangladesh’s, so 5pc sounds good. However, the parts of the manifestos that ring an alarm bell are the parties’, especially the PTI’s, assertion that the education system will be “uniform throughout the country”. Before treading this path the parties should study Bhutto’s well-intentioned but disastrous move of nationalising educational institutions.
Over the years since Partition, the gulf between the two major systems of education in the country has been widening, to the extent that, in education, there are ‘two nations’; one whose chances for improving their skills and lives are fair to good; and the other whose chances are nil to few. The less troublesome way to achieve uniformity between the two groups, an approach that also seems egalitarian, is to pull down the higher group and maybe push up the lower group slightly.
Political parties who come into power should beware of this, for it would mean destroying or at least weakening what little has been achieved. They should concentrate almost exclusively on pushing up the weaker group. Also, a common system or curriculum is not the solution for improving education. This can only be done by improving standards in government schools by introducing a good curriculum, contemporary with universal progress that encourages critical thinking and problem solving in any language.
Examinations should be based on the curriculum and not on textbooks as they currently are, because that makes rote-learning essential. Teachers need to be supported through incentives, security, training to keep them abreast with good teaching. High quality textbooks need to be introduced, and school libraries to encourage supplementary reading.
Children in state schools suffer from three glaring disadvantages: 1) there is no education in their background; 2) little familiarity with the language in which they start their education, and none with the language of advancement — English; and 3) no pre-school experience (government schoolchildren start school at age six or more, in class 1, with no preparation). These disadvantages can be addressed with sincere, sustained effort at formulating appropriate public education policies and implementing them effectively.
We have not explored one powerful medium with the potential for delivering education which is television. While we have been oblivious to its enormous capacity, television has found its way into most homes. Our political parties should invest some of their 5pc in a programme of attractive pre-school education.
One entire state TV channel should be devoted to supplementing the education of those who are deprived of an educated background and pre-school preparation, as well as good teaching in schools. Strong emphasis should be placed on supplementary teaching of mathematics and language. Foreign experts and donors would no doubt be interested in supporting such an endeavour.
Training teachers is not the only answer to raising educational standards. Training is for teachers the proverbial icing on the cake. But there has to be a cake to spread the icing on. That cake is sound education. The teaching profession attracts only a tiny percentage of the well-educated in the country because it offers neither prestige nor high salaries.
The new government that believes in change could start from here. The reality now is that teachers emerging from a worsening state of education can only be worse-educated teachers from one generation to the next. Therefore improving the state of education will not only directly benefit students but also ensure better teachers.
At the same time salaries in the teaching profession should be made more attractive and various measures such as annual government awards and best teacher awards should be given to teachers to raise their status and attract people of better calibre to the profession. More ways of enhancing their prestige should also be devised.
In Pakistan the role of libraries in education has been sadly neglected. From class and school libraries to public libraries this institution abounds with unexploited potential. Yet few schools give regular library time to their students and a follow-up consisting of activities such as writing book reviews or class discussions is almost nonexistent. School libraries should be teeming with books that can attract students to the book culture and encourage them to acquire the habit of reading. The reading habit provides a child with an alternate and independent way of accessing education.
The number of public libraries should be increased and located where students and especially teachers can easily reach them. Libraries should offer courses, arrange lectures, hold discussions and generally become vibrant hubs for self-education, radiating a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere. Teachers should be honoured guests there and given the importance that will ensure repeated visits and be a boost to their prestige.
Of course there are many other aspects to improving education in Pakistan and many of them have been tried albeit half-heartedly and not very successfully. However, exploiting the reach and untapped potential of the television and a network of vibrant and active school libraries is worth the effort and is bound to bring rich dividends to efforts for the improvement of educational standards.
The writer is managing director, Oxford University Press.