Education can singlehandedly turn the fortune of any nation and can be the best and most appropriate step for any problem any state is going through. If we see nations that have developed their infrastructure and are at the top ranking it is just because of their focus on the educational system. According to various surveys and studies undertaken by national and international agencies, all of Pakistan’s basic education indicators are in the negative zone. A policy paper recently released by Education for All Global Monitoring Report (GMR) and UNESCO pointed out that Pakistan has the second highest number of out of school children (5.4 million) in the world after Nigeria. Almost 60 percent of the out of school children are girls. What is more, the number of out of school children in Pakistan has stagnated since 2009. The report stated that Pakistan is far from achieving the 80 percent enrollment target it had set for 2015. This is not surprising as Pakistan has suffered the second largest cuts in aid to education of any country in the world in the last two to three years.
Unfortunately, Pakistan also has the highest number of illiterate adults in the world, after India and China. It may be recalled here that, in 2000, education ministers from 164 countries and representatives of civil society organisations and leading international organisations, including UN agencies and the World Bank, met in Dakar, Senegal and set six goals for Education For All (EFA) making a collective commitment to rapidly expand education for children, youth and adults by the year 2015. Every year, a Global Monitoring Report is compiled to inform and influence governments and civil societies to sustain commitments to achieve the EFA Goals.
According to the latest report, Pakistan is among the 21 countries facing an “extensive” learning crisis based on a number of indices, such as enrolment, dropout rates, academic performance and literacy. Pakistan scores low in every index. Global standards of primary education are particularly depressing in south and west Asia, and western Africa. The countries in these regions, including Pakistan, are behind in virtually every index. To our shame, as regards educational achievements, Pakistan is ranked among 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, along with Mauritania and Morocco.
The latest EFA Global Monitoring Report showed that fewer than half of children are learning the basics in Pakistan whether they have been to school or not. One of the most serious findings is that, while on the one hand the public educational infrastructure in Pakistan has almost crumbled, in private schools, 36 percent of grade five students cannot read a sentence in English. In Balochistan province, only 45 percent of children in grade five could solve a two-digit subtraction, compared with 73 percent in Punjab. Only around one-quarter of the girls from poor households in Balochistan achieved basic numeracy skills.
Pakistan is in the category of nations described as “very far from targets”. Regarding adult literacy, the report says that the rate was 55 percent in the year 2011, expected to reach 60 percent by the year 2015. Almost 60 million Pakistanis today are utterly illiterate. China, that more or less had the same literacy rate as Pakistan in the early 1950s, has achieved 95 percent literacy.
Pakistan also faces what is called a teachers crisis. In a list of countries that have the highest shortfall of teachers, Pakistan is the only non-African country to be included. On the other hand, those countries that cut education expenditure and show lack of political will in pursuing the EFA goals have fallen further behind. One special finding of the report is the relationship between education and health. In Pakistan, only 30 percent of women with no education believe they have a say over how many children they have, compared with 52 percent of women with primary education and 63 percent of those with lower secondary education.
The challenge in the education field is difficult but not impossible to overcome. In the last few years, 17 countries reduced their out of school populations by almost 90 percent by investing in positive actions such as providing financial support to struggling families. These 17 countries that accounted for about one-quarter of the global out of school population in 2000, have reduced their out of school populations by 86 percent, from 27 million to less than four million, in little over a decade. In Nepal, for instance, 24 percent of children were out of school in 2000 but this rate fell to one percent by 2013. Morocco’s out of school population fell by 96 percent over the same period.
Examples from around the world show that seven targeted policy measures can go a long way in reducing the number of out of school children. These include abolishing school fees, increasing spending on education, improving education quality, introducing social cash transfers to offset the costs of schooling, introducing teaching in local languages and overcoming conflict. In Pakistan, school fees have been abolished since 2010 and the Right to Education Act has been long on the statute book. However, lack of follow-up measures has diluted their impact.
It is a sad fact that Pakistan is one of only three countries outside sub-Saharan Africa to spend less than $ 150 per primary pupil on education. The government keeps pledging that the budgetary allocation for education will be increased from two percent to four percent of GDP, but the target has never been met. Due to paucity of funds in rural areas many primary schools lack sufficient classrooms. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for example, more than half of the schools do not contain the requisite five classrooms for primary level education. There is also a need for more qualified teachers, especially female teachers, to help encourage more girls to remain in school. It is estimated that unless the gender gap in teacher recruitment is speedily eliminated, out of school children rates will continue to languish.
In today’s world, I believe that the benchmark for excellence is education. Moreover, if a country has a distraught academic infrastructure, the chances to survive in the current competitive world are small. The illiteracy rate in Pakistan is alarmingly high, calling for critical attention. The federal and provincial governments need to work together towards the elimination of flaws in the education system in Pakistan rather than giving away laptops. The funds can be brought to productive use by training the teachers, declaring education compulsory and free of cost and providing essential pre-required schooling material like uniforms, books and stationary.
The present government has announced that it will soon be implementing a national plan of action for education to accelerate progress and double education spending. Let us hope that it is not just a paper promise and empty rhetoric for political consumption. To be frank, the record of past performance in this regard is not very inspiring.
The writer is a social and political activist based in Lahore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org