Tuesday September 28, 2021

New book advocates equality of opportunity in Pakistan’s schools

June 12, 2021

‘Agents of Change’ is an immensely enjoyable and inspiring book that is deserving of a widespread readership inside and outside Pakistan. Unlike many works of political literature, it is not an angry tome, nor is it reductively ideological. It can be best described as a results-oriented work written by an extremely diverse group of pragmatic idealists with a passionate belief in the power of a quality education coupled with a fierce opposition to an education system that is failing millions of children in the country.

Author Amjad Noorani, along with co-editor Nadeem Hussain, and the advocates of change he interviews, pull no punches and leave few stones unturned as they expose the why behind an education system that has produced such glaring inequities in Pakistani society. The country’s dysfunctional education system suffers from a myriad of problems, including soul-crushing language apartheid, elite indifference, political self-interest, unqualified teachers, nepotism, widespread corruption, governmental mismanagement, feudalism, lack of oversight, assessment or objective monitoring of the operationalisation of the system, gender bias and massive economic inequality. Noorani doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant facts about the state of education in Pakistan, but he doesn’t believe the system is beyond repair. However, to change the system he emphasises the need for active engagement from innovative thinkers, social entrepreneurs, civil society organisations, community and religious leaders, educational actors, and other members of civil society.

“To simplify the challenging process, we must focus on actions to rebuild a durable, equitable and progressive education ecosystem,” Noorani writes. “We must identify and mobilise the stakeholders, bring together people from civil society, put heads together to develop an action plan and roadmap, with open communication and eagle-eye focus on actionable priorities.”

Noorani criticises the country’s elite for turning a blind eye to the marginalisation of the nation’s underprivileged youth, but the book is not presented in an “Us vs. Them” manner. Rather, Noorani encourages those in power to be part of a collective “we” that supports the upliftment of all of Pakistan’s children: “What probably happened is that we, the elite, were content that a superior Cambridge system [high-quality, elite private schools that only children of affluent parents can afford to attend] had become more readily available to our own children. The plight of the poor was neglected. No thought was given to the declining quality of education in the K-10 Matriculation system. In this, I regret that I was one of the culpable elites who lacked the sensitivity. But, it’s never too late to make amends and do the right thing.”

Noorani argues the class and societal segregation created by this language apartheid is not just shamefully unjust to most of the student population, it also deprives students from affluent families of the opportunity to socialise or to get to know fellow students. To reinforce his point, Noorani cites the experience of Tooba Akhtar. Akhtar, who now heads the Leadership Training Team at Teach for Pakistan, came from a privileged family and had little to no interaction with most of the Pakistani population before she started teaching. She said: “It was a stark realisation for me that our life paths were decided by where we were born. It kept nagging at me…of course, there is abject poverty in Pakistan, you see it everywhere, but I had never thought about who ‘these people’ are, and what their lives are like, what do they like or dislike, who are they – and they just look like me but then our lives are so different, yet our lives are so connected. I think I had a deep, deep unsettling sense of how ignorant and privileged and naïve I had been. I had never thought about this, or done anything about it, because of the power structures that continue to exist and the number of people that won’t do anything about it. I belong to the privileged class in Pakistan, a privileged family. We are the kind of people who just turn away and never do anything about it, or anything that would affect us greatly. These were the stark realisations I couldn’t shake off. That’s how my work with TFP began, as I was rediscovering myself, asking myself what I cared about and what I wanted to do.”

Noorani persuasively argues providing universal access to education and quality education for every child is not only the ethical and moral thing to do, but it also will be a boon for the entire citizenry. He points to the United States, Western Europe, China and other East Asian countries to highlight how quality education for all spurs economic and technological development in a country.

Far from just pointing out the many problems that afflict Pakistan’s education system, the authors also propose both innovative and pragmatic solutions. They contrast and compare the state of K-12 public education in Pakistan with schools run by The Citizen’s Foundation. TCF, one of the largest non-profit education systems in the world, is offered as a role model and a blueprint for what education reform in Pakistan could and should look like. Since its inception in 1995, it has provided more than 250,000 students from some of the country’s poorest communities the kind of first-rate education that has been denied to most of Pakistan’s youth. TCF has consistently outperformed government-run and low-cost private schools through quality teacher training, efficient management, content-specific curriculum, an intensive performance assessment system, a sliding fee scale that makes the schools affordable to all children and provides parents with agency over their children’s education, up-to-date textbooks and a teaching staff that is 100 per cent women-led. The all-female staff provides assurance to parents and increases enrollment and retention of girls in the schools. To increase excellence among its educators, TCF does pre-service training and regular evaluations of a teacher’s knowledge of content along with her pedagogical skills.

The non-profit was founded as a response to the violence and lawlessness that gripped the country at the time. Alarmed by the direction the nation was headed, six civic-minded men debated what they could do to help their country. After some discussion, they concluded the most compelling solution to the problems that wracked Pakistan was improving the country’s education system. This led the group of determined individuals – Rashid Abdullah, Arshad Abdullah, Haamid Jaffer, Ateed Riaz, Mushtaq Chhapra and Ahsan Saleem – to co-found The Citizens Foundation. While the main focus of the organization from day one was to provide a quality education to children in impoverished areas and slums, the co-founders wanted to emphasize their organization was aimed at improving things for all Pakistanis.

“We began to think of a name that would represent all people of Pakistan that everyone would be comfortable being part of the cause of education and feel attached to it as a national solution,” Mushtaq said. “Thus, the name the ‘Citizens Foundation’ was born.”

TCF built five primary schools in 1995 and then it built 10 more in 1996. By the third year, this number had climbed to 30. The organization, however, had a high dropout rate for its students after they passed sixth grade. Unhappy with this reality, TCF began building secondary schools in 1999. This helped slow the dropout rate in poorer settlements where the schools were built. TCF has continued to grow, and it now has a network of more than 1,500 schools. In 2016, the non-profit started to adopt government schools that were not doing well on their own. They hired new staff, including new teachers and principals, and invested in restoration of the buildings that needed repairs (cleaning, painting, new furniture and supplies). By 2016-2017, TCF had adopted 250 government schools while adding 21,000 students.

The organization is fiercely committed to making sure children have access to a quality education no matter where they call home. For example, TCF has built schools in Balochistan – the largest and least developed province in the country. Balochistan is afflicted with many challenges and complexities including occasional uprisings for autonomy, feuding between tribes and poor infrastructure at all levels. Yet, TCF has helped improve the state of education in the area. Irum Naz, the principal of a TCF school located in a small town in Balochistan, discussed the differences between the education he received as a child compared to the educated offered at TCF-run schools.

“My teacher couldn’t explain the math concept and it was a matter of memorising or guessing the right answers,” Naz said. “It was learning by repetition, like a parrot without understanding.”

The principal distilled why TCF schools are succeeding where others have failed in providing a quality education for young people from the nation’s non-elite families. “It’s because our teachers are being trained in the concepts and proper math pedagogy,” he said. “That’s not the case in the worst public or low-cost schools.”

TCF boasts an 86 per cent attendance rate (compared to a nationwide average of 62 per cent; and a 95 per cent secondary school graduation rate (compared to 50 percent across Pakistan). In addition, more than 40 percent of the organization’s students go on to attend higher education compared to just six percent nationwide. Half of TCF’s students are female and many of these young women go on to obtain highly skilled jobs, which allows them to break the generational poverty cycle and defy long-held stereotypes about a woman’s place in society as well as the family unit. The inclusion and empowerment of females who receive a quality education through TCF is an important lesson for the rest of the country – especially those who hold political positions in the government or the country’s provinces. Data has consistently revealed how important investing in education for girls is to the long-term economic health of a country and its children. In addition, studies have shown how key maternal education is to the health of a child. In the book Young Africa: Realizing the Rights of Children and Youth, Anne Bakilana and Alex de Waal write, “[E]ducated women understand far better how to protect their children’s health, both in terms of everyday child care and sanitation and also in terms of seeking health care. Educated women also have greater aspirations for their children and tend to have lower fertility and longer birth intervals.” They also note that women who completed less than a primary school education did not register significantly increased survival chances for their children.”

This does not mean that women who were poorly educated and have a large family have less talent or worth than educated women with smaller families. It does, however, highlight how important it is to ensure Pakistani children receive universal access to a quality education as is mandated by the 18th amendment of the Constitution. If a woman decides to have a large family her choice should be honored, but the woman who has not received a quality education or any information on family planning has knowingly or unknowingly had her choices narrowed because of lack of opportunity.

The book also confronts the stigmatidation of madrasas and the need to integrate them into the education system. While acknowledging some of the shortcomings of the madrasas, Noorani argues they play an important role in educating many of the country’s underprivileged children. Even though critics who oppose these colleges for Islamic instruction (because of their blend of religion and education and lack of scientific methodology), Noorani highlights instructors – including Dr Zeeshan Ahmed – who seem committed to reforming the teachings to provide learners with a more modern education. Given the large number of children who attend madrasas, Noorani is correct to reason these education systems are here to stay so it makes sense to work with them to update their teachings instead of trying to regulate or coerce them into change.

However, there are questions about whether madrasas will ever be willing to teach secular scientific methodology, embrace an egalitarian role for women in society and allow students to challenge traditional teachings – even those that are part of religious scripture. These questions, however, shouldn’t obscure Noorani’s point that it is wrong to stigmatise madrasas as hotbeds of religious extremism when there are teachers who are working hard to reform the system from within.

Another barrier to social and political equity the book tackles is the role of language in education. Although Urdu is the mother tongue of the nation, affluent schools teach their pupils English.

Meanwhile, the schools where 80 per cent of children receive their schooling is taught in Urdu. The English schools not only offer a superior education compared to the Urdu schools because of the dysfunctional nature of Pakistan’s public school system, but they also graduate students who are prepared for higher education because the colleges in the country are taught in English. For millions of students who are taught in Urdu in secondary schools the switch to English for college amounts to the imposition of a language apartheid.

“We prepare the majority of our secondary school students in the Urdu and then break their spirit and confidence by expecting them to abruptly switch to English for college,” Noorani said. “We have been ‘teaching’ in the wrong language, English – instead of the beautiful and local languages of our environment.”

He proposes short- and long-term solutions to the country’s class-based, opportunity-killing language gap. In the short-term he supports increasing the intensity of English language being taught in the Urdu medium school systems in grades 6-10. He concedes this will be difficult because the schools will have to find teachers who are competent in English. Meanwhile, he advocates English-medium schools introduce requirements for higher skills in Urdu to decrease the language gap between students from the public and private schools. He identifies colleges and universities making the transition from English to Urdu as the long-term solution to ending the country’s class-based, two-tier education system.

Noorani, however, does support the continued use of English in higher education as a supplemental language for technology, terminology, research and learning global information. He points out countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and Germany all use this approach.

Anjum Altaf, an economist, activist and development specialist who previously served on the World Bank, didn’t mince words about the reasons for the state of things in Pakistan.

“Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression,” he said.

Altaf, however, warns against education reform that ignores the humanities and focuses solely on skills acquisition. In addition, he condemns the bigotry and intolerance that is featured in some elite schools. “A literate individual taught to accept falsehoods and prejudice unquestioningly would be more dangerous than an illiterate person,” he writes. “There is a difference between education and indoctrination.” He adds “[E]ducation is not pouring propaganda into empty minds but enabling those minds to think for themselves.”

The writer is the author of ‘Dissidents of the International Left’