HEALTH or education? Which should be the government’s first priority? I would say education and health. Both have a symbiotic relationship. A government that recognises the importance of its social capital and the value of its human resources will address both sectors.
Good health facilitates good education, just as good education should promote health by teaching people the basics of preventive medicine and health care. But when a state is strapped for cash and focuses on other matters that it erroneously believes to be important for its national security, it tends to neglect ‘frivolous’ issues like education and health.
If expediency demands that the state should be seen as caring for the welfare of its citizens, the first choice should be education. Nothing poses a bigger threat to a society than the ignorance of its members. Educating a child and teaching him how to use his mind and intellect to differentiate between good and bad and put his knowledge to effective use is a more challenging and expensive exercise than curing his body of disease.
Today, the Pakistan government is putting up a show of focusing on education as a result of external pressure. Western powers have been led to believe that lack of education has pushed our people into extremism and turned them into militants. The ostentation so publicised by our electronic media has also created a public demand for education since it is widely believed that a slip of paper with a degree or certificate printed on it is enough to get its holder a lucrative job. Hence the paper chase with free resort to unfair practices.
All this has forced the government to put up a pretence of addressing the education needs of the children of Pakistan. Article 25-A has been introduced in the constitution, making it incumbent on the state to provide free and compulsory education to all children five to 16 years of age. The provincial governments have entered into agreements with donor agencies to expand and upgrade education. Countless reports have been produced by various organisations and experts investigating the education sector. Issues such as curricula, textbooks and the training of teachers have come under scrutiny. Never before in the history of Pakistan has so much ink been spilt on writing reports on the education problems we face and the strategies that must be adopted.
Regrettably, this is not creating any impact. True, there are private-sector institutions that provide high-quality education that makes students world-class professionals who can compete with the products of the best universities the world over. This has a grave dimension.
This education is not the right of all. Only a small elite minority has access to it. The majority has to make do with the mediocre education that leaves it incapable of reaching the academic level it is expected to.
An Annual Status of Education Report survey for 2011 conducted mainly in the rural districts of the country found that only 47 per cent of children tested in grade five could read a story in Urdu or Sindhi, while 40 per cent could read a sentence in English but a quarter of them had no comprehension of what they had read. Only 21 per cent of children had number recognition from 10 to 99 and 32 per cent could subtract two-digit numbers.
The major problem with education in Pakistan today is the inequitable distribution of resources between the privileged and the underprivileged. This is a serious matter for two reasons. First, the poor who are denied good education will remain trapped in poverty forever, no matter how hard they may try to improve their lot. Being inadequately qualified, they can never get high-paying jobs. Poverty will continue to be their and their children’s lot. Without money they will not be allowed to enter the high-class schools that have been set up as profit-making concerns.
Second, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will continue to widen and the number of those below the poverty line will increase.
It is now important that the authorities start the process of upgrading the public-sector school system. The changes needed are too obvious for me to list. While the 26 per cent out-of-school primary-age children must be enrolled, there is also a need for infrastructural and pedagogic improvements in these schools. A government school census in 2005 found 12,000 schools out of 227,791 were ghost schools, 23 per cent had no boundary walls, 20 per cent were deprived of drinking water, 35 per cent had no electricity and 25 per cent were without latrines.
Simultaneously, teachers have to be trained and mobilised to improve the quality of education. When standards are so low, even small improvements mean a lot and will be visible.
When it comes to addressing the quality of teaching, the high-quality private schools need to be reformed as well. They have failed to look at the minds of the students in their care. With so much research being undertaken on the brain and how experience actually changes it in the early years of life, it is surprising that our schools have no role to play in the development of the mind.