In deep waters

January 29, 2023

Why has the right to education not materialised for school-age children?

In deep waters


ven before the Covid-19 pandemic and flood emergencies rocked the boat, a third of the children of school-going age were actually out of schools in Pakistan (22.8 million according to the UNICEF). The dropout rate crossed 50 percent in some areas and there were disturbingly low learning outcomes that the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) showed annually, including in 2022.

Kaiser Bengali had found in 1999 that all five-year plans and special programmes aiming at mass education including Farogh-i-Taleem, Nai Roshni, Literacy Programmes, invariably failed in achieving the targets for materialising the right to education. Unfortunately, the projects in the subsequent years did not perform any better. Therefore, in spite of an incremental growth in literacy rate in the past 75 years, the number of non-literate citizens did not decrease. This implies that the efforts could not keep pace with the population growth.

The dismal performance of the education sector is rooted in factors like poor administration, low allocations and inefficient utilisation of resources, redundant curriculum and textbooks, inappropriate teachers’ training and an examination system that promotes rote-learning. Political considerations/ interference reinforce the structural and systemic disparities that make a breakthrough hard to achieve. Hence, no matter how tall the claims or promises, the gaps in outcomes have persisted.

Conversely, delivering the constitutional rights needs well-phased plans based on a genuine assessment of means and ends to address the persistent gap between the objectives and results.

For instance, after the education policy of 1972 had essentially undermined the education sector by nationalising the educational institutions and Islamising education, the promise to “remove illiteracy and provide free and compulsory secondary education within minimum possible period” in its Article 37(b) in the 1973 Constitution became meaningless.

Later, the 18th Amendment in 2010 added Article 25(A) that made “free and compulsory education” a fundamental right “of all children between the age of 5 and 16 years.” This was reinforced by legislations in all provinces till 2017.

Those opposed to provincial autonomy under the 18thAmendment succeeded in creating a Ministry for Interprovincial Coordination at the federal level aiming to undo the devolution of powers in the education sector. The Single National Curriculum (SNC) also undermined the 18th Amendment as Ayesha Razzaque observed in one of her contributions to The News. The implicit oversimplification that centralising the curriculum will solve all problems in education, was a cardinal mistake.

The dismal performance of the education sector is rooted in factors like poor administration, low allocations and inefficient utilisation of resources, redundant curriculum and textbooks, inappropriate teachers’ training and an examination system that promotes rote-learning. 

Experts have way pointed out the way forward. Baela Raza Jamil has emphasised improvements in pedagogy including teaching the content at right levels. Use of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction (Tariq Rahman and Zubeida Mustafa) and the necessity of improving resource allocations to end the sustained educational apartheid (AH Nayyar) have also been highlighted. Bengali, however, has emphatically argued for improving institutional capacities before budget increases for education.

Writing on the disputes regarding appointments in Higher Education Commission, Salman Akram Raja, concluded in an April 2021 piece for The News that “use of legitimate power resides in its restraint and the moral core.”

Each of the many challenges in education sector comes with vicious circles and disabling factors that the government has to deal with in order to address the institutional dysfunction. The stakeholders find themselves constrained to move forward. A couple of examples will show how the situation is inhibiting progress.

Last year, a group of concerned parents approached the Lahore High Court with concerns regarding the religious content that the children have to study and pass exams for. The Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board replied that it was necessary under the constitution (Article 31) and in deference to the feelings of the majority Muslim population.

During 2022, when the Standing Committee on Education in the Punjab Assembly tried to find out why the right to education had not materialised, they found out that the Education Department had never prepared rules of procedure to implement the Punjab Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2014.

The chairperson of the committee, Aisha Nawaz, considered moving an amendment to the Act to make it applicable with immediate effect in order to dispense with the rules of procedure. However, the committee was constrained by a sectoral plan. This example from the Punjab illustrates why right to education for a large number of the school-age children cannot materialise – at least in the short run.

The long list of challenges includes disabling legal provisions and technical glitches, and a lack of appetite for out-of-the-box solutions.

Recently, former federal minister Miftah Ismail advocated enhancing the role of private educational institutions; channeling the government resources through the private institutions; and incentivising education for children who cannot afford it. Some might consider the idea to be in conflict with the spirit of Article 25(A) which makes providing free and compulsory education a responsibility of the government.

However, considering the paucity of resources, policy dilemmas, institutional failures and governance glitches, this appears to be a pragmatic solution in the short run. Besides allowing private institutions some freedom, the federal and provincial governments should develop a reforms agenda to address the gaps. In the long run though, the governments should focus on building their capacity as benevolent regulator as well as competitors in providing quality education.

Given the enormity and complexity of the issues, the government should constitute an empowered permanent commission on education, composed of independent experts to prepare policy guidelines. The commission will need autonomy.

The author is a researcher, policy analyst and a freelance journalist associated with the Centre for Social Justice. He can be reached at

In deep waters