After a raft of 14 well-preserved educational policies and billions thrown aimlessly at public schools, policy planners continue to grope in the dark trying to figure out what to do with the 25 million 5-16 year old out-of-school children, of which 11.5 million are in Punjab. As an aside, in the near absence of vocational and skills-development programmes, a vast majority of those who are attending school also face uncertain futures as there is no guarantee of jobs once they have acquired their matriculation certificates.
The need for an education emergency has been in full public view for more than four decades and just when Pakistan needed a Primary Education Commission, a Higher Education Commission (HEC) – somewhat akin to planting a tree upside down – sprung into action. Its architects have since been languishing in their proverbial anterooms in anticipation of the miracle that will help catapult Pakistan’s educational achievements into a higher orbit.
Without a solid feeder school system, it is hard to imagine how and why tertiary level educational programmes would function with any degree of success. They have not shown to have done so in any other country.
Projections with respect to schooling outcomes in the years ahead paint a dismal picture because of the steady population growth rate of two percent per annum, especially among the rural poor whose literacy rate is already less than 30 percent. The challenge is compounded by the fact that the existing literacy programmes are inadequate to meet the deficit and there seem to be no traces of a coherent pathway for stemming the tide of rampant illiteracy in the future.
The national educational frame is indeed complex. In Punjab alone there are 65,000 public schools, 40,000 private schools and an estimated 20,000 formal and non-formal madressahs. So there are three different sets of syllabi in both Urdu and English languages that these institutions follow. This instils conflicting worldviews in the youth through mostly uncertified teachers.
Not all education programmes necessarily pass the test of desirability. For instance, rote learning (with the exception of memorising the Quran and the Hadith) is an archaic learning style which diminishes creative capabilities and replaces critical thinking with a ready acceptance of the memorised content as the gospel truth. Armed with a stick and carrot, a homespun syllabus, outmoded teaching methodology, an unqualified teacher can play havoc with a student’s future course of action, leading him or her to, as we now well know, suicidal missions and lynching fellow students.
The overarching problem in each of the schooling panels, according to Unesco, is the extremely weak delivery system because of a significantly large number of untrained teachers. The key to developing successful schools is directly related to the quality of teachers whether they are in Finland, France, Canada or Cuba. A common thread that runs through the high yield educational experiences of these countries is their continuous commitment to improving teaching standards and thus teacher training and educational research grants are apportioned large financial outlays.
While per capita expenditure on teachers in Punjab is relatively quite high – higher perhaps than what private schools spend on their teachers – a vast majority of them do not come anywhere near meeting the minimum universally accepted teacher certification requirements.
Successive governments have thrown good money after bad, ignored teacher education as the fundamental link in the education value chain, increased the ill-planned pool of unqualified teachers and wasted money on secondary support systems, including expensive foreign curriculum developers and trainers, who, directly or indirectly, add only marginally to student learning. Adding, as evidence suggests, even less to developing the indigenous capacity to institutionalise critical literacy as the foundational framework for implementing meaningful primary educational programmes.
Based on the compelling work done by organisations such as the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, the government of Punjab, if only because of its sheer size and the resources at its command, must take the lead in establishing teacher training and professional development hubs throughout the province. A word of warning though is in order: as research shows that most teacher training programmes have a short ‘shelf life’. This means that unless the newly-acquired teaching skills are periodically reinforced, the tendency for teachers to revert back to their old practices takes on average only three to four weeks.
Some of the existing infrastructural and human resources such as the Daanish schools can be effectively utilised as regional training hubs. Each school can be mandated to prepare master trainers to be deployed in a focus district to serve a cluster of primary, secondary and high schools, if only to start the process of changing the teaching practices of our teachers.
The writer is an Ontario-certified teacher and member of the Ontario
College of Teachers.