To start the academic year for all educational institutions in August, and also to introduce the teaching of English from class one

Shamim Ahmed Rizvi
Bureau Chief, Islamabad
June 19 - 25, 2006

The federal government is providing all out support to the Higher Education Commission which is trying hard to create Ph.D. in hundreds to cater to the teaching needs of higher education. The objective is to place Pakistan in the map of knowledge based economics.

Currently, the primary and secondary education is suffering from insufficient attention on the part of the Provincial governments. The ground seems to be slipping beneath the country's education system.

Speaking at a two-day education conference in Islamabad last week, the federal education minister, Lt-Gen (Retd) Javed Ashraf Qazi, said the entire system from the primary to the higher level need revamping. According to his statistics, 20,000 schools in Punjab alone lack basic facilities such as drinking water, boundary walls and toilets. The situation in the other provinces is equally bad, if not worse. Mr. Qazi also said that 45 percent of students drop out before completing their primary education. There is no incentive for teachers who are paid a pittance. The quality of teachers is therefore really poor and getting poorer by the day. The examination system is flawed and so on. Of course, Mr. Qazi was talking about the schools in the public sector. But even in the private sector a majority is not much better than the public sector schools.

Mr. Qazi had another interesting observation to share with the participants. He blamed the devolution of power to local governments for creating several complications in the education system. According to him, interference by the Nazims in the functioning of colleges has a zero pass rate last year because of the undue interference of Nazims. This should intrigue General Pervez Musharraf as well as the National Reconstruction Bureau. General Musharraf says devolution is one o the biggest achievements of his government. But his education minister, another retired lieutenant general, says the system of local governments has begun to impact negatively on the schools. Clearly, we have a problem here.

This frank and blunt statement rather confessions of the Federal Education Minister are enough to conclude how elusive are goal set by the present government to achieve universal primary education by 2015.

The National Education Census, due to be completed by the end of this month, will turn up detailed statistics on this sorry state of affairs. But the basic reasons for a high drop out rate are well known and are embedded in poverty and the low priority that successive governments have attached to education. The latter is borne out by figures showing that only 2.3 percent of the GDP is reserved for public education while the regional average for such spending is 3.6 percent. Much has been made of the government's recent steps to remedy things by increasing the focus on education, especially higher education, but it is unfortunate that while the school enrolment rates are up, the drop-out trend has yet to be reserved.

The problem cannot be isolated from the larger social picture. Poverty often forces children to leave school and find work to supplement the family income. Besides, most government schools are in a shambles lacking even basic facilities. In rural areas, this problem is particularly acute and compounded by the long distances between home and school which many children, especially girls, find difficult to traverse Another major reason why children quit school is the harsh corporal punishment meted out by teachers who are themselves the products of a perfunctory education system. All these factors must be taken into account by the team of experts currently reviewing the educational policy 1988-2010 so that lapses can be identified and corrected in accordance with the ground realities. Even as it seeks to bring improvements in the education sector, the government must implement the wide-ranging poverty alleviation measures that it promised to do, but of which there are few signs. Along with higher budgetary allocations for education, poverty alleviation measures are important for lowering the dropout figure.

The Education Minister in his address to the participants of the conference comprising top educationist from across the country, also outlined some important measures that are to form attempt to create some semblance of uniformity in the public and private sector education systems. The government has decided, he disclosed, to start the academic year for all educational institutions in August, and also to introduce the teaching of English from class one. While the value of English teaching cannot be underestimated, it remains a moot question whether it is advisable to begin it so early, especially in the rural areas where most teachers are unlikely to be duly trained to do the job. The bigger challenges, however, relate to high dropout rate at both the primary and secondary school levels and the poor quality of education offered by the government- run schools. Surprisingly however, none from the participants pointed out this ground reality to the Minister.

A constant lament in this country has been the low priority that successive governments attached to public sector education. Not to long ago, a State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) study had noted with concern that the budgetary allocations to this sector, at 1.7 percent of the GDP, were the lowest in the whole of South Asia.

Little surprise then that the Education Minister said that the dropout rate among primary school children is al high as 45 percent, and that the problem is linked with the lack of the basic facilities in government schools. An idea of how badly lacking these facilities are can be had from the same SBP report. It disclosed that 71 percent o the schools functioned without electricity and hence without fans in the oppressive heat of the summer months, while 57 percent had no toilets, and 15 percent cases there was no building to protect the students from the vagaries of weather. A litter over half of the schools did not have any boundary walls, which meant the students were free to come and go, as they liked. Given these conditions, those who preferred to run away, never to come back, are not really to blame.

Furthermore, teacher absenteeism is a serious problem, which, in part, maybe attributable to the lack o such basic facilities as a fan or a proper toilet, and also to an ineffective oversight system. Qazi delivered the good news that this situation was to be reformed, and that the government has allocated Rs. 1.75 billion for the provision of basic amenities to all public sector schools. It is also expected to implement the conference recommendations regarding the revival of school inspectorates at district level, appointment of teachers purely on merit basis, institutionalization of in-service training for the teaching staff, and performance linked system of grade promotions.

The Education Minister also said that new curricula and textbooks would be introduced in order to fulfill the requirements of good education. That indeed is a major challenge for the ministry, not because there is dearth of duly qualified people to perform the task, but because it would require reversing the changes that were made during the decade of Gen. Zia's misrule. It was during that time that genuine knowledge was strongly discouraged and obscurantist ideas promoted to serve him regime's political purposes. His unsavory legacy has lived on through an unreconstructed education establishment. It remains to be seen how far the new textbooks are to go in inculcating quest of knowledge in the young minds.

The concluding session of the Education Conference was also addressed by the Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz where participants heard interesting argument between the Prime Minister and the well known religious scholar Dr. Javed Ahmed Ghamdi who deserve our compliment as he courageously put up his argument in total disagreement of the Prime Minister and recommended that Islamiat (Islamic Studies) be introduced as a subject only after class V. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz differed with him and said that students should be imparted religious education from the very beginning. In the recently approved scheme of studies, the government has excluded Islamic studies ass a subject in the first two grades. Dr. Ghamdi wants this exclusion to extend to the fifth grades. He argued that until students reach class, V they should be taught ethics to instill in them a sense of humanism and civility. According to Dr. Ghamdi, imparting religious education at an early age tends to produce religious and sectarian extremists. He recommended that the compulsory teaching of holy Qura'an should begin with Class VI, so that no mullah can 'spoil an innocent mind'. Dr. Ghamdi also wants the distortions in history textbooks to be removed. Mr. Aziz, however, differed with Dr. Ghamdi. "In my personal view both religious and formal educations are necessary from the beginning. Religious education helps character building", he said. Mr. Aziz added that the education system must be based on "Pakistani values and religious norms". To me Dr. Ghamdi appears right and it appears surprising that Shaukat Aziz known to be a moderate and enlighten gentlemen failed to grasp the soundness of Dr. Ghamdi argument.

By emphasizing "ethics" before a study of religion, Dr. Ghamdi is clearly arguing that " ethics" and "religion" are two different categories, and religion, if it is to be understood in its correct perspective and not induce violent hatred, must be tempered with ethics. This is an incisive argument and by presenting it Dr. Ghamdi has done a great service to this country. Since the benighted days of General Zia ul Haq, this country has mixed religion and ethics with disastrous results.