Education is considered to be a potent force that paves the way for development, change and freedom. It is viewed as an important factor that enhances the life chances of an individual. These life chances are of an economic, educational, and social nature. As a result, education is viewed as the passport to a better world.
Another important function of education is to reduce the socioeconomic gaps in society. Such gaps or inequalities lead to unrest and frustration. These inequalities are based on specific divides, such as the rural-urban divide, gender differentials and the gap between the rich and the poor. Opportunities and life chances are asymmetrical based on these divides.
Children living in rural areas are deprived of basic educational and health facilities and are, therefore, handicapped in the open competition for academic and job placements. Similarly, there are clear differentials in the treatment of girls and boys. In most cases, girls aren’t encouraged to pursue their higher studies outside Pakistan for social or security reasons.
The divide in terms of the haves and the have-nots also impacts educational opportunities. For example, 22.84 million children in Pakistan don’t attend school, which is an alarming figure. The situation appears worse if we consider the fact that 35 percent of schoolchildren drop out before they reach the eighth grade. Pakistan has one of the highest school dropout rates in the world. This is ironic because Pakistan is considered to be quite fortunate as the National Human Development Report indicates that 65 percent of the country’s population is below 30 and 29 percent is between the ages of 15 and 29. But we haven’t exploited the opportunities that a young population presents.
As a result, of the 68.4 percent of children between the ages of five and 16, 39.6 percent do not attend schools. The challenge of access, coupled with the challenge of the increasing dropout rate among children, has a direct impact on the country’s overall literacy rate, which currently stands at 58 percent – one of the lowest in South Asia.
Another factor that is aggravating the literacy problem is the high rate of increase in population growth, which is adding to an already large number of out-of-school children. What happens to these out-of-school children is quite disturbing. Most of them start living on the streets and are seen selling flowers on the roads or washing the windscreens of cars at traffic signals. Some of them opt for the easy option of begging and spend the rest of their lives in this profession. A sizeable number of them fall prey to the torturous practice of child labour.
These children never get the opportunity to experience the joys of childhood. Many out-of-school children get addicted to drugs and develop serious health problems. Some of these children are easily trapped by criminal gangs that exploit them. Therefore, young people who don’t go to school have turned into a liability for the country.
Although education is a tool that can bridge socioeconomic gaps in society, it has ironically been used to widen them. Our educational systems are already stratified on different accounts. For instance, there are public-sector schools (popularly referred to as Urdu-medium schools); madressahs that predominantly impart religious education; elite private English-medium schools, private English-medium schools for the middle class; street private English-medium schools, cadet schools/colleges and, more recently, Daanish schools.
These educational institutions vary in terms of their fee structure, curriculum, textbooks, the quality of teachers, assessment systems, and school milieu. A distinguishing feature that gives an extra advantage to students of specific educational institutions, especially in the Pakistani context, is their proficiency in English. In most of the cases, this is considered to be a deciding factor in the job-placement process. This is one of the major reasons for the popularity of private schools as parents tend to believe that private schools prepare their students in developing better English language skills.
There is a sharp divide between schools for the rich and that of the poor. For instance, schools for the rich have all the necessary facilities, such as clean drinking water, heating and cooling facilities, and proper furniture. Meanwhile, schools for the poor lack these facilities. Many of these schools don’t have boundary walls, access to clean drinking water, and proper heating and cooling facilities.
These different school systems are like detached islands that are churning out students with different and competing worldviews, and unequal academic, economic, and social chances. This situation is encouraging socioeconomic inequalities to prevail in society. As a result, frustration and extremism has increased because children suffering from an education apartheid tend to believe that the doors of quality education are closed to them.
Unfortunately, no education policy in Pakistan has focused on alleviating socioeconomic gaps and no action plan has been proposed to reduce these gaps. The first priority of the government should be to provide basic facilities at schools. To achieve this, there is an urgent need to increase funding for education to at least four percent of the country’s GDP. However, this increase must be coupled with a comprehensive capacity-building plan for the sector.
The writer is an educationist.
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