Dr Monazza Aslam
Education transforms. There is no denying this fact today. It alters the course of a person’s life and the lives of all persons associated with him or her in uncountable ways. It alters economic outcomes, it influences life chances, it sways, it encourages, it arouses, it impacts and it stimulates. Given the fundamental role it plays in a person’s life, there is no bigger tragedy that even today Pakistan is struggling to bring millions of children, many of them girls, into the folds of this magical transformer. The latest Global Monitoring Report (2013-2014),developed by an independent team and published by UNESCO, provides an authoritative picture of the status of global education, and this report has identified 57 million children as being out of school, 31 million of whom are girls. This report also shows that Pakistan has the second highest number of children out of school and two-thirds of them – 3 million – are girls. According to UNESCO, Pakistan also continues to be a country with some of the widest education inequalities in the world.
The costs of poorly functioning education systems are numerous. The complete lack of education for many as well as the poor quality of education imparted to millions of others – measured by low learning outcomes – undermines competitiveness, growth and hinders efforts to alleviate poverty. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) consistently highlights both facts – not only that we still fail to bring almost 21% children aged 6-16 into school but also that among those who are in school, learning levels are alarmingly low. Among the 150,000 + children aged 5-16 years assessed across rural and urban Pakistan in 2014, 54% of children who were in class 5 were unable to read a story from class 2 curriculum in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto. Even more alarmingly, this proportion is higher than the 50% reported in 2013, hinting at some deterioration in learning levels during the year. Let’s pause for a moment and try to digest this fact. More than half the children, who are in class 5, simply do not have the competencies expected of them at the end of class 2; after at least 5 years of formal schooling, these children have not even mastered the competencies expected of them after 2 years of primary schooling. If we realize and recognize that a well-educated, literate and numerate workforce is critical to generating and sustaining growth in this rapidly changing world, the cadre of children we are developing will be simply unable to compete in this globalized world. The social and economic implications of this cadre of ill-prepared individuals – both those who did not enter the education system at all or dropped out and especially those who entered with dreams and expectations but where the system failed them – are disquieting. In this increased climate of extremism and radicalism, it is all the more important for the State to recognize how important it is to provide these individuals this fundamental right, to ensure their energies are channeled into appropriate and beneficial channels.
So Pakistan stands at a crucial juncture in its history and perhaps never before has the value of education been so well-established than it is today. The million dollar questions on everyone’s mind: what do we do? How do we bring ourselves out of this quagmire? How do we overhaul an education system that is mired with a multitude of problems? The solutions, I believe, will have to be multi-pronged and multifaceted. However, perhaps the most important education reform agenda needed today is the need to prioritize interventions that focus on outcomes rather than on inputs alone. Boundary walls, textbooks, physical structures, toilets are all important. There is no denying this fact. However, a school with a boundary wall, a toilet, blackboards and flip charts that does not have a teacher – either because of deployment issues or because of absenteeism- is not going to be able to deliver the outcomes we want. Similarly, a teacher who is unable to cater to the needs of children either because she is not well trained, or does not have the necessary skills or resources will not be effective in delivering quality education. ASER Pakistan has consistently highlighted that more than 10% of the teachers sampled during the data collection process in 2014 were reportedly ‘absent’ in government schools across the country. Addressing these deep-rooted problems is necessary for bringing about positive changes in our education system. It is crucial to provide able and capable and motivated individuals to enter the teaching profession, to hold them accountable for the jobs they do, and to develop appropriate career progression structures that retain capable individuals within the teaching cadre. There are countless examples and anecdotes of how fundamental a teacher is in a child’s life. A good teacher can alter the life of an individual. An absent teacher or a poor quality teacher will also alter the life of an individual with repercussions for the entire country.
Today, Pakistan does not have a choice. We must provide our children with meaningful and valuable education. The consequences of not doing so are too unsettling to contemplate. The only way to transform the country and get ourselves back on our feet, so to speak, is to overhaul our education system.
(The author is an education economist, working on gender and education in Pakistan. She holds a DPhil. in Economics from the University of Oxford and is a Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Education, University of London, a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of African Economies, CSAE, Oxford and is a Senior Research Fellow at Idara-Taleem-o-Aagahi, that implements ASER in Pakistan. She can be reached at:[email protected] www.aserpakistan.org)