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Thursday July 18, 2024

Education emergency: now or never

Pakistan identified the need for education as a critical priority for the nascent state right after its creation

By Abdullah Fadil
June 03, 2024
The picture shows students walking towards their school. — Online/File
The picture shows students walking towards their school. — Online/File

“Let me read, let me grow”, said a 10-year-old child I met in Mirpurkhas. And this is primarily the voice of every child I have met in Pakistan.

The first word uttered in Islam as the command of revelation to the Holy Prophet (pbuh) was ‘Iqra’; Islam started with the command to read. Education is obligatory in Islam. The Quran urges people to develop their abilities and traits through education. It says, “Allah will raise those who believe and have knowledge.”

Pakistan identified the need for education as a critical priority for the nascent state right after its creation. Seventy-seven years ago, in 1947, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah called for a national education conference as “one of the first attempts in the field of education and literacy.”

In his message to the conference he said: “...the importance of education and the type of education cannot be over-emphasized...there is no doubt that the future of our state will and must greatly depend upon the type of education we give to our children, and the way in which we bring them up as future citizens of Pakistan...we should not forget that we have to compete with the world which is moving very fast in this direction.”

The constitution of Pakistan was further amended in 2010 with the introduction of Article 25A, that required the state to “provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years.”

In honouring the constitution’s dictum, the judiciary has been challenging the state and governments over the past decade and more, providing key court judgments and underscoring the paramount importance of education as a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. There are judgments that are clear about the judicial mandate for educational equity; inclusive education and social justice; and the transformative potential of education, and how all of these will not only contribute to a more equal and just society but also build social cohesion and human capital and provide sustainable national security.

And I can go on quoting from Islamic injunctions and rulings by the highest court of law in the country to my personal experience of interacting with children without overemphasizing that every child, boy and girl, must be in school and learning.

Pakistan was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, guaranteeing education under Article 28. Pakistan also confirmed its commitment to the 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a focus on SDG-4.

And yet, across Pakistan, over 26 million children of school-age are out of school – one of the highest numbers of out-of-school children in the world.

This comprises over 10 per cent of all out-of-school children globally; Pakistan’s population is no more than 3.0 per cent of the world population. The country may actually have the largest number of children out of school globally. Most of these children are girls; the underprivileged; those living with disabilities; and children in hard-to-reach areas.

Even when children do go to school, 77 per cent of them are not able to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. At a time when investment in education should be increasing, it is decreasing. In 2019, it was 2.3 per cent of the GDP. But for 2023-24, it is 1.7 per cent.

With these staggering figures, it is timely that an education emergency was declared in the country last week. However, a cynic may say: what is new? We have been here before.

Emergency education conferences have been called since day one of Pakistan, this last one being perhaps the sixth or seven, and constitutional amendments and challenges have been made in the courts with clear direction to the state, both at the federal and provincial levels. When will these calls move the needle on the issue and achieve a tangible result to address children out of school and education quality once and for all?

If the moral imperative does not move all of us, denying millions of children the right to education, the learning crisis threatens Pakistan’s future prosperity and national security.

This learning crisis is manifested in other ways as well. For instance, the World Bank defines human capital as consisting of “the knowledge, skills, and health including nutrition and cognitive development that enable people to realize their potential as productive members of society.”

Pakistan ranks the lowest on the World Bank Human Capital Index in the South Asian region – 0.41 compared to the regional average of 0.48. The only way to alter this situation is by investing in children through nutrition, healthcare, quality education, jobs, and skills.

Giving children the opportunities to play and learn in early childhood education classes; providing them with nutritious food and clean water; protecting them from exploitation and abuse; and preventing them from falling into child labour or early marriage are some vital measures that must be taken so these children could contribute to a productive and prosperous Pakistan.

Pakistan is unique in many ways: It is one of the three countries whose official state title includes the word Islam – Islamic Republic – and the first modern state to have such a name.

It is home to one of the three oldest civilizations in the world – the Indus Valley civilization. Pakistan stands as a beacon of those civilizations, inheriting a legacy of enlightenment that stretches back to millennia. During the Islamic golden age, our forebears ushered in an era of unparalleled progress leaving an indelible mark on human history.

It ranks 30th on the list of countries by the number of scientific/technical journal articles. It is one of the 14 countries or entities to have sent missions to the moon.

With the declaration of a learning emergency, this could be the start to better rally leadership, partners, and resources.

We must get children back to school – raise awareness amongst parents, children, and communities about not only the lifetime earning benefit of education but also its importance for the economy and society; improve educational standards by equipping and supporting teachers; build climate-resilient schools; ensure schools with proper facilities for girls and differently-abled children; and send a strong message to the children and their parents that we are ready to invest in their futures.

We must make smart investments in education: supporting teachers with structured pedagogy, providing quality pre-primary education for young children, reducing travel times to schools, giving merit-based scholarships to disadvantaged children and youth, and many more.

For us, development partners to the government, it is heartening to know that the urgency of getting every child into school and learning has been realized. This synthesis of legal principles and societal imperatives emphasizes the urgent need for concerted efforts to ensure universal access to quality education, as mandated by the courts.

By holding the government accountable for ensuring universal access to quality education, the judiciary plays a pivotal role in advancing the constitutional mandate of promoting the welfare and dignity of all citizens.

Action is now anticipated: a cost and time-bound action plan - that is funded and implemented. The plan has ambitious but achievable targets: reduce the number of out-of-school children to fewer than 10 million by 2029; increase annual expenditure for education by 0.5 per cent of the GDP; and ensure all children in Pakistan can read at age 10 by 2030.

Before the children of Pakistan sue us all for denying them one of their fundamental rights, let us get them in school and learning – a start to build the productive and prosperous Pakistan we all want to see.

The writer is the Unicef representative in Pakistan.