Set for school

Hajrah Mumtaz

UNDER the clear sky of a warm summer day, a group of young children climb up and down rocks, chase each other, and band together for a game only to abandon it a minute later. These are the students of the Government Boys’ Primary School, Gulehra, about three kilometres down from the main bazaar in the New Murree area, which is rendered well known through the chairlift and tourist attractions that were established there by an earlier Sharif government during the 1990s.

Notwithstanding the name, the school – which goes up to Class 5 – is co-education. In the freshly painted two rooms of this small establishment, 14 girls and 15 boys learn their alphabets and numbers, and the other subjects prescribed under the standardised Punjab government school education curriculum.

Right now, it is break time, and what the school lacks in terms of a playground is made up for by wide open space on a wind-cooled hillside. Keeping a watchful eye over the students from the school’s veranda are their two fairly young mentors, head teacher (who is effectively the headmaster) Mohammad Ghayyas, and Sumaira Faraz. The two are recent recruits here – they’ve been here for under a year, though both have prior teaching experience – but say that already there has been a bit of an uptick in enrolment figures. The current figure of 29 is up from 20 when the teaching staff changed hands.

Why this is so, they explain, is because in recent years, the Punjab government has made an attempt to bring fresh blood into the schooling system in this area, improve facilities, etc. Ms Faraz explains that teachers are being hired on merit, through the National Testing System – she herself has an MA in Urdu from the University of Punjab, while Mr Ghayyas has an MSc in Physics from the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology in Islamabad. Both are locals, belonging to the Danda area.

Though tiny, this school is equipped with washrooms and drinking water facilities. Students pay a fee of Rs 20 per month, underwritten if necessary through the Faroghe Taleem Fund. This is provided for by the Punjab Assembly under the Punjab Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2014, and allows a school management to collect contributions and donations at a scheduled bank, to be utilised for the welfare of the students.

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If this presents a rosy picture of an area where the 1998 census found a 69.3 literacy rate amongst people of age 10 and above, the scene a couple of kilometres down the road at Baray Hotar seems even more encouraging. By the time I reach the Government Girls’ High School, Charhan, the day’s work during this month of Ramazan is done, and long queues of students are winding up towards the road from this establishment, and down towards the road from a private school. Their conveyances are waiting: a dozen or so private Suzuki vans – the kind that jingle-jangle their way across the countryside – which, overloaded with people and schoolbags, will drop students by the roadside as close to their homes as feasible.

The headmistress of the high school has already departed, but a teacher who wishes to be identified only as Ms A (she is worried that her employers might not like her speaking to outsiders) concurs with the primary school teachers that education in the area is fairly robust. The infiltration of madressahs on this side of the hill (along the road between Patriata and Angoori) is not as high as along the main Murree Road, she says, but private schools are another ballgame altogether.

As a teenaged girl approaches her for some last-minute directions regarding homework, she explains that somehow private schools have acquired the reputation of being ‘better’, as though their higher fees guarantee better standards. Yet this is far from true, she continues: private schools can take liberties with their syllabi, especially at lower schooling levels, in ways that government institutions cannot. Upon being asked to explain further, she merely says rather darkly that I should count the number of schools that “sell themselves on the basis of religion.”

By now a group of fresh-faced young girls are gathered around us in curiosity. I ask a Class 5 student what she wants to be when she grows up. “A maths teacher,” she replies shyly. Another offers to show me around the spacious school premises, which are spruced up, neat and tidy.

I next go to a private school of the variety mentioned by the high school teacher. Here, too, the students are gone for the day but there remain a couple of teachers waiting for transport. Their smiles upon my introducing myself prove sadly short-lived though: when the conversation rolls around to the conformity of the syllabus with the government-approved ones, there is a lull, after which they excuse themselves to complete some tasks that had been left pending. I fare similarly at the second private school I visit.

In the small snapshot of education in the tiny portion of the Murree area that I have recounted, matters appear to be progressing fairly smoothly. One wonders, were the state to set up more schools and institutes offering opportunities for higher education, perhaps the region – which is clearly respectful of education – could be pulled out of its poverty.

The writer is a columnist and an assistant editor at a major English newspaper

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