August Issue 2019

By | Education | Published 5 years ago

Seldom does one come across any good news about the state of education in Pakistan. In July this year, a UNESCO report stated that one out of every four children in the country do not complete their primary education. Additionally, the government revealed that 23 million out of 55 million children (40 per cent) are out of school.

Unfortunately, those who do attend school are not much better off, for the quality of education imparted at institutions is abysmal.

While Pakistan’s founding fathers had a vision for the education system in the country, there has been a downward spiral over the seven decades of its existence, as no government has shown the political will to invest in education. All international treaties – the Universal Charter of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights – recognise education as the birth-right of every child; the International Conference in Jomtien, Thailand (1990),  emphasised “education for all”; the authorities in Islamabad, however, have always turned a deaf ear to these proclamations.

At the Tanjai Cheena school in Swat Valley, students squeeze into makeshift ‘classrooms’, where plastic tarps serve as walls and electricity is scarce.

In 2010, for the first time, Article 25-A was introduced in the Constitution, making education free and compulsory for children between the ages of five and 16. But 10 years on, this has hardly been implemented. Last year, Balochistan adopted a law to enforce this Constitutional amendment. But the rules that are needed to make the law effective have yet to be enforced. In fact, UNESCO has stated that we are far from attaining the Sustainable Development Goals of 2030.

In the absence of any political commitment, the education sector has been left in the lurch.

The standard of education is determined by the quality of teaching, textbooks and examinations system. ASER has been conducting education surveys in the rural districts of the country for the last 10 years. It found in 2018 that 48 per cent of the fifth grade students could not read a sentence in English, while 44 per cent could not read a story in Urdu, or any regional language. The report also revealed that 47 per cent of these children were unable to do division sums with two-digit numbers.

Before we start any process of reform, the first step must be to adopt the basic, universally-recognised principle, that students’ primary schooling must be in their mother tongue. The issue of the medium of instruction remains ambiguous. To create confusion, it has never been clarified that initially, English will be taught only as a second language – as a subject – and not be used as a medium of instruction. At this stage, English will be taught additively and not substractively. Meaningful change can be brought about in the education sector only after the language issue is clearly resolved by a general consensus.

Language aside, without properly qualified teachers, no education system can be effective. When the standard of teachers declines, so does the education sector. A good teacher cannot be trained in a day. And short courses are not the solution to the problem for poor students hoping to be trained as professional teachers.


Pop singer and philanthropist Shahzad Roy’s venture, Durbeen, set up under his wife’s stewardship, has provided a ray of hope. He plans to open a teachers’ training college and run a four-year B.Ed. course.


Initially, it will be a challenge, because the students will be the products of our stagnating system. Moreover, according to reports, the students of private sector educational institutions, who would be among the more promising candidates, are not interested in joining it to become teachers in public sector schools.

Another cause  of scepticism in respect of this venture is that the medium of instruction is still not clear. If it is to be English – which is erroneously equated with quality – the Durbeen college will not succeed in optimising the quality of its teaching.

The issue of textbooks is comparitively easier to handle. At least we do not have to start from scratch. The Textbook Board’s books, which dominated the education sector, were found to be too ideologised, lacking in human compassion, dull and too nationalistic to meet the demands of objectivity.  But over the years, the monopoly of the Textbook Board has been broken. There are many private school systems, such as Beaconhouse, which are now publishing their own textbooks and some of these are available in the market. The Citizen’s Foundation too has taken an initiative on this front. Oxford University Press, Pakistan, is also in the field of textbook publishing. The government will be expected to enter into agreements with various publishers, keeping in mind that subsidies may be required to lower the price. Competition should help improve standards.

The quality of the examinations may pose the toughest challenge. Purging the widespread practice of cheating during exams will prove difficult in a nation that has been tainted by corruption and dishonesty as a whole.

There are many other areas of education that need to be addressed. I firmly believe that if a start were to be made in the school sector, changes would filter down to the higher education sector as well.  This means universities, colleges and professional education will also be open to reforms.

All this requires a lot of planning, which includes rationalisation and consolidation of the infrastructure. I have seen several large school buidings that wear a deserted look in the countryside, with no signs of people living anywhere nearby. Similarly, I have visited school buildings that house eight schools within them. Then there are the one-room schools, with a single teacher instructing four classes. When it comes to secondary schools, the number of institutions is halved. Should one be surprised by the high drop out rate when children complete the fifth grade?

In the newly merged districts (former FATA) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the situation is far worse. Neglected since 1947, this region of five million people came within the folds of the settled areas only a year ago. There are fewer schools here and the gender balance is far worse than in the rest of the country, as numerous girls’ schools were destroyed by fundamentalists.

Seventy-two years down the road, education is in a deplorable state in Pakistan and if we don’t act now, things will get worse. With the government failing to provide quality education to the children of the country, the private sector stepped in to fill the vacuum. Thereafter, it has played an increasingly influential role, while that of the public sector has continued to grow dim. In the absence of any governmental regulation, the private sector expanded rapidly in size and influence. Today, 30 per cent of school-children in Pakistan are said to be studying in private schools.

The elite private schools provide quality education, for which the parents pay through their noses. Since the local schools’ graduation exams are in such a mess, many schools enlist their students for the O- and A-Levels exams of the London or Cambridge Boards. Every year, nearly 120,000 children appear for these exams in Pakistan, and an average of Rs 100,000 is spent per head.

The present system of education is inflicting serious damage on our society. It is promoting and perpetuating inequity. Nothing divides a society more than the lack of equal opportunities for education. A poorly-educated person cannot compete with a well-educated person while job-hunting and will therefore remain mired in poverty. Additionally, they may not be able to provide their children with a good education either, since private sector schools may be beyond their reach. Poor education and poverty feed off each other and are locked in a vicious cycle.

All this after trillions have been spent in the name of education. In the early years, Pakistan’s governments did not regard human resources as being worthy of much investment and this belief exists to this day. As a result, the education sector is allotted only a fraction of the budget each time, even though it is the biggest employer in the country (after the armed forces). Even so, education is big business today; a lot of what is allotted to it remains unspent or is embezzled.

Zubeida Mustafa is a senior journalist. She writes on a variety of subjects but her interest has mainly been in the social sector which she has covered extensively. She has investigated in-depth issues such as education, health care, women’s empowerment, children’s rights and the lives of ordinary people.