In the last six months, most media reports coming out of Pakistan focus on the country’s polarizing politics and position within the international arena. Development challenges and efforts in the country have been largely passed over in favor of headlines questioning Pakistan’s future. However, development is back on the public agenda with the results of a 2011 household survey on the status of education in the country. The results have been qualified as “shocking” and implicate the urgent need for education reform in the country.
According to the Pakistan Education Task Force, a kindergarten child in Pakistan has just a 1% chance of reaching the 12th grade. This figure represents a clear failure on the part of the Government of Pakistan and of the education system currently in place. The household survey called the “Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), Pakistan 2011” – conducted by the South Asia Forum for Education Development in collaboration with the Open Society Institute, Department for International Development, National Commission for Human Development and Oxfam/Novib – collected data that shows how poor literacy has paved the way towards incomplete elementary and secondary education.
Data collection for ASER was executed in 85 districts throughout Pakistan, including urban centers like Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. Nearly 49,000 volunteer surveyors participated in collecting detailed information on 143,826 children between the ages of three and 16, where 59% were male and 41% were female, from 3,466 public and private schools. Across various states in the country, there is a high incidence of poor literacy: nationally, as many as 58% of children cannot read a single sentence in either Urdu or their regional language, and 75% of children in Pakistan are unable to read a single sentence in English. For example, in Sindh it was found that 81.2% of Class-V students could not read Class-II level sentences in English, while 59.5% could not read a story in Urdu or Sindhi. Math skills were also found lacking where 76% of students could not do simple division.
Literacy is one part of the education challenge, but so too is access. School matriculation seems to have decreased in 2011 compared to 2010 where government school attendance of children in the six to 16 age group decreased to 66.9% from 67.2%. In the three to five age group, 57.3% of children were not enrolled in pre-school while 32.3% of children under five years old were out of school.
A key reason behind diminished attendance rates is explained by the limited education of mothers: in Punjab alone, 58.4% of mothers in surveyed households were found to be illiterate. This would directly affect the education of girl children – who predictably lag behind in literacy and school attendance rates across the country. Further research and analysis is needed to construct a narrative of how education is being valued by households in today’s modern Pakistan, as well as its availability and quality as deciding factors in school attendance.
Earlier this month at a seminar entitled, “Education and Human Development,” at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, Dr. Shaukat Farooq, President of the Knowledge-Based Welfare Society, stated that poverty and ignorance were Pakistan’s “biggest evils” and that the “national identity can only be achieved by making education uniform, compulsory and free for all and increasing its quality.” Dr. Farooq went on to cite how Western world progress is distinguished by industrial and social development that depended on education and knowledge; basic education was made mandatory in these countries over 100 years ago, and Pakistan needs to follow suit so that it can rise and meet the needs and challenges of the 21st century.
The government has not ignored the education sector needs of the country, but it has adopted some dubious solutions that call into question the depth of awareness and understanding of the national problem. For instance, in December 2011, Chief Minister Shahbaz in Punjab had instated a “free laptops” scheme whereby eligible college and university students would receive a free laptop in efforts to improve technology access and experience. There were a few problems with this approach, the first of which is clearly that this does not address the critical education needs of young children, which was already a notable issue. The second problem is that this scheme would have been quite costly at a time when the country, at the state and national levels, is struggling with a staggering deficit. The third problem highlights a larger issue with regard to the next stages of education. Basic literacy is a problem, but alongside this is the clear challenge of digital literacy, which is found to be an obstacle in the capital city. This last problem does not only point to perhaps a more “advanced” educational need, but it points to a trend that is already widely felt in the country between the poor and all other, higher social strata. Bridging the gap between an incomplete and complete education, in any discipline and at any level, means that reform must be the guiding light of forward-thinking education strategy for the government.
The argument for a uniform education system is not new, but in light of the survey’s recent results, immediate and decisive action is needed for the sector. With the recent passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency has said that the government should now take steps towards establishing a uniform education system. The specific nature of the reforms that need to be adopted are not yet defined, but they should definitively reexamine the current approach to literacy and how that can be rectified. There is also a real need to address school attendance rates, particularly with girl children who will only become further disenfranchised without a proper, basic education.
Reforming the education sector will not only involve a new approach or perspective, but also money. The need for Pakistan to ramp up investment in its education sector is pressing: currently, the country allocates only 1.5% of its GDP to education, whereas the UN standard is 5%. Until the Government of Pakistan makes education a greater priority and goes beyond intellectualization to actually affecting the necessary changes, next year’s ASER may show similar, if not more discouraging, statistics, and that would point to not just the failure of the education system, but of the government as a whole.