No school, no education

Zubeida Mustafa

AS you approach Makli by the National Highway from Karachi, you will notice a school building standing in splendid isolation. It has no signs of having been used for educational activities. No youthful voices echo in its empty halls or have ever done. No tiny feet have pitter-pattered there.

It causes one to wonder what is the idea of building a school so far removed from human habitation? Many such unused structures dot the countryside. They actually serve a purpose. They help pad up government records and inflate the number of existing institutions. Their construction additionally justifies the expenditure shown in the budget under the education head. Who cares if some of the money spent went into lining someone’s pocket and no child benefited from it.

But what is the need to boost numbers? That is a part of the great debate that has haunted education planning in Pakistan. There was once talk of “quality versus quantity”. It never entered the wise heads in their ivory towers that there could be “quantity with quality”. In this debate quantity won. Then the realisation dawned on the policymakers that education would have to be made accessible to all children. Thus began the number game. It came to be widely believed that more schools mean more education. Who would notice that a school that doesn’t function, like the school near Makli, helps no one. It is there to whitewash the sins of the education department.

The number game also has the subtraction process. Fully functional public sector schools are handed over private universities. That is how the Government Model School in Clifton changed its signboard to become the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto University of Law. I haven’t been able to locate the children who studied there.

To start with, let us take the case of the number of schools in Pakistan and the number of school age (5-16 years) children who have to be provided education. According to demographers there are about 51 million children who need to be educated under Article 25-A. AEPAM, a body set up to collect data on education, tells us that less than 29 million children are enrolled in 230,550 schools in Pakistan. It must be added to the satisfaction of the orthodox that another 2.6 million attend Deeni Madaris. Alif Ailaan quotes approximate 22 million as the figure for out-of-school children — mercifully the madaris are not equated with the schools.

Zaheer Udin Babar Junejo
Thar Science Festival 2018
The platform enabled students to showcase their hidden talents

But these figures do not tell us the full story. AEPAM makes no distinction between a full-fledged educational institution and those one/two roomed structures which accommodate two/three classes managed by one/two harassed teacher(s). But can any education really take place in such conditions when a cacophony of voices would drive anyone up the wall. We have no idea how many such schools exist, posing as institutions where teaching takes place.

Then there are thousands of schools that have no boundary walls, electricity supply, drinking water or toilets. On enquiring, I was once told that many girls, who are enrolled in such institutions, come to school in the morning and with the first call of nature or the first bout of thirst go home not to return till the next day.

Then there is the location of the schools. It seems it has never been strategised. I have visited schools where eight institutions were housed in one building. One of them had six students on its rolls with ten teachers. In the rural areas the situation is worse. There are some villages over-loaded with schools and in large tracts of adjoining areas there is not a single school. There are far too many anomalies to be described here. There is need for the education departments in all the provinces to carry out an intensive exercise of studying the placement of schools all over the country and rationalise their location.

The absence of planning is reflected in the illogical and lopsided picture that emerges when you look at the ratio of schools at various levels.  At present there are 150,000 primary schools in the country with 19 million children on their rolls. Once they complete Grade 5 they try their luck and seek admission in the 49,000 middle school which accommodate a measly 6.5 million students — a whopping drop-out rate of 66 per cent. Pakistan is perhaps the only country in the world that actually drives out its students from the school system by denying them access to higher schooling.

Another way of asking students to leave is by inducting the private sector in a big way in the school system since many children cannot afford the fee charged by private schools. Note how the ratio of private schools increases as one moves up. In the primary level, the private sector comprises only 12 percent of the total institutions. At the middle level, private schools are a humungous 66 percent.

All this will have to change if education has to be universalised in Pakistan. Is there anyone who can drive this change?

The writer is Dawn’s former Op-ed editor. She currently writes a fortnightly column on the social sectors. Her writings can be found at  www.zubeidamustafa.com

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