Madrassa enrolment data in Pakistan is ‘highly exaggerated’: World Bank
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: A new World Bank-funded report has questioned the authenticity and accuracy of policy reports and stories in the Western press about the madrassa system in Pakistan, having found them to have ignored publicly available data.
The report entitled ‘Religious School Enrolment in Pakistan: a Look at the Data,’ released last month was written by Tahir Andrabi1 of Pomona College, Jishnu Das of the World Bank, and Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Tristan Zajonc of Harvard University.
The report points out that bold assertions have been made in policy reports and popular articles on the high and increasing enrolment in Pakistani religious schools or madrassas. “Given the importance placed on the subject by policymakers in Pakistan and those internationally, it is troubling that none of the reports and articles reviewed based their analysis on publicly available data or established statistical methodologies.” The authors found the existing estimates “inflated by an order of magnitude.”
The authors found that madrassas account for less than one percent of all enrolment in the country and there is no evidence of a dramatic increase in recent years. The educational landscape in Pakistan has changed substantially in the last decade, but this is due to an explosion of private schools, an important fact that has been left out of the debate on Pakistani education. “Moreover, when we look at school choice, we find that no one explanation fits the data. While most existing theories of madrassa enrolment are based on household attributes -- for instance, a preference for religious schooling or the household’s access to other schooling options -- the data show that among households with at least one child enrolled in a madrassa, 75 percent send their second and/or third child to a public or private school or both. Widely promoted theories simply do not explain this substantial variation within households,” they wrote.
The funding for the report was provided by the World Bank through Knowledge of Change Trust Fund.
The report points out that the existing estimates of madrassa enrolment are “highly exaggerated.” Even the most liberal estimate is still below the lowest estimates in newspaper articles and policy reports. It states, “This imbalance is accentuated when we look at the fraction of children enrolled in madrassas, either as a percentage of school-aged children or enrolled children. This fraction has been overstated by a factor of 10 in The Los Angeles Times (2003), and 33 in the report by the International Crisis Group (2002). Moreover, there is currently no evidence of a dramatic explosion of enrolment in madrassas in the 1990s … Madrassas are most popular in the Pashtun belt with the top 10 districts in terms of the fraction of enrolled children in madrassas all bordering Afghanistan -- where they still account for less than two percent of all school-aged children.”
According to the authors, madrassas declined in popularity for those born between 1947 and 1974 and increased thereafter, the biggest jump being for those born between 1979 and 1983, which has to be related to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “It appears that this ‘Afghan’ influence is related more to geographical proximity than to preferences for religious schooling among Afghan immigrants,” some of the data showing no difference between Pashtun and non-Pashtun households in the use of madrassas. Among households with at least one child enrolled in a madrassa, 75 percent, the study found, send their other child to a public or private school or both.
The authors also went into the question whether poorer families are more likely to send at least one child to a madrassa? Their finding was that “at an aggregate level there is little difference between poor and rich households in the choice of religious schooling.” They also found that in settlements where other schooling options exist, less than one percent of all enrolled children go to madrassas, a fraction that remains unchanged for all income groups. In settlements where there are no other schooling options, the fraction of children going to madrassas increases and is higher among the poor compared to the rich -- although it stays below four percent for all income groups.
The report concluded, “It is likely that the number of settlements without public or private schooling options will reduce considerably during the next decade, primarily due to an ongoing dramatic explosion in the growth of private schools. In 1983 there were approximately 3,300 private primary and secondary schools in the four biggest provinces. In 2000 the same four provinces had 32,000 private schools, an almost a ten-fold increase in less than two decades.
The growth in low-cost rural private schools is particularly dramatic, a point left out of the current debate on education in Pakistan. For the average child -- even a relatively poor one -- the most popular alternative to government schooling is a private school, not a madrassa.
As to the popular Western view that madrassas promote religious extremism and zealotry – they have often been described as ‘jihad factories -- the authors wrote, “While we do not have data on whether madrassas promote extremist views and recognise that this is likely to differ across different types of madrassas, we can conclude that current estimates of madrassa enrolment -- both absolutely and in percentage terms - are significantly overstated. Moreover, existing theories fail to adequately explain madrassa enrolment and largely ignore intra-household considerations which appear important. If a proactive policy toward madrassas is necessary despite the small numbers, more sophisticated theories as well as additional up-to-date, publicly available and verifiable data are needed.”