Unfulfilled promises

January 29, 2023

Education and literacy levels are of little concern to the country’s rulers

Unfulfilled promises


hirteen years ago, the state of Pakistan committed itself to regarding education a fundamental right for Pakistani citizens and providing free and compulsory education as solely its responsibility. Yet, public spending on education is much lower than that recommended internationally, and there are 23 million school-age children out of school.

Even earlier, in 2002, Pakistan had committed itself to the Dakar Declaration of the UNESCO on Education For All, promising in a follow up Plan of Action to create 8,250 new primary schools in the next five years to enroll an additional 3.5 million out-of-school children (OOSC). Needless to say, it failed to reduce the number of OOSC in Pakistan. Neither has it succeeded in reducing illiteracy.

Had the state kept its promise to the world, or met its obligation under Article 25-A of the constitution, the number of OOSC would have been reduced by now to near zero. Pakistan could have proudly been among the 100 countries of the world with a near 100 percent literacy. It does not seem to matter to the country’s rulers that the nation’s literacy level, now standing at 56 percent, is 18th from bottom among 209 countries of the world, lowest in South Asia and lower than many African countries.

Nearly half the school-age children are still out of school; have either never been to school or have run away from the dreary learning environment of the public and low-fee private schools. Most of the other half – that are in school – receive a substandard education. Who knows how many millions of promising nascent brains, a national asset otherwise, remain unnourished, stunted and wasted. In the absence of an enriching education, the nation is becoming increasingly poorer. Education, like the entire social sector, remains at the bottom of state priorities.

Estimating financial requirement for getting all the school-age children into schools is a complex matter but could be an important factor for the state, and for understanding why it has not happened. Islamabad’s Institute of Social and Policy Sciences made these estimates some ten years ago, according to which (after a bit of extrapolation in some cases) the total financial need for achieving a near 100 percent enrollment within 10 years would have been somewhere around 14 trillion rupees. The estimate included the infrastructural need, additional teachers and salary as well as non-salary budgetary needs.

The constitutional right granted in 2010 said: The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of 5 to 16 years in such a manner as may be determined by law. The laws were left to the provincial legislatures to frame. The federal laws were passed in 2012, and the four provincial laws by 2014, but their implementation is still out of sight.

In the absence of an enriching education, the nation is becoming increasingly poorer. Education, like the entire social sector, remains at the bottom of state priorities. 

The only part that stands implemented so far is that no fee is charged in public schools and free textbooks are supplied by the state. There are no reports from the federal and provincial governments on the enrolment of OOSC except the pathetic claim by the PTI-led federal government that it had re-enrolled 7,000 children back into schools. What an achievement –seven thousand out of 23 million.

Apart from the miniscule number of this claim, I have been a witness to the way the OOSC were accommodated in federal primary schools. The Federal Directorate of Education ordered that no child coming for enrolment be refused. The result was that a classroom for 20 children was forced to accommodate 50 to 60 children, with varying ages and background of competencies. They represented a nightmare for the teachers, who were not prepared for handling such a situation. They were virtually teaching a multigrade class each of 50 or so students.

This reminds me of another gimmick that I witnessed in 2006 when the then Punjab chief minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi launched his Parha Likha Punjab scheme. No girl child seeking admission was to be refused in public schools, and for each girl child so admitted, her parents would receive Rs 300 per month. I happened to visit a school in Sheikhupura where the enrolment had jumped up by a large factor. The classroom meant for 30 students was found insufficient to accommodate all the children, so the children of Grade II or so were asked to gather in the vast school courtyard and get a brick each from a nearby pile to sit on. The teacher needed at least 15 minutes to arrange the seating, bring order, and twenty minutes to call attendance. The make-shift blackboard provided for the class was too small to be visible to all the students. Before any meaningful class activity could begin, the class time was over. This spectacle proved to me that the entire exercise of Parha Likha Punjab was a political gimmick. There was no audit of this scheme.

The non-enrolment of children is generally attributed to two factors: absence of schools in the neighbourhood and the need of poor families to subsist on their children’s labour.

The provincial Acts prescribe punishments for parents who fail to send their children to school, and for persons who employ juvenile workers. Appreciating that very poor families would be deprived of an earning family member if they are forced to send their child to school, the Acts urge the governments to offer a token financial support to the poor families who send their child to school.

In spite of the threat of punishment and the lure of financial grant, we find all around us school-age children still employed at homes, in tea stalls, shops, workshops, bus stops, etc. How many employers have been jailed so far?

Realising that the state may not be able to provide a proper schooling environment for the enrolment of OOSC, the laws rely on private schools. The provincial laws require all private schools to set aside 10 percent of every class for students needing education free of all charges. Obviously, this requirement violates the Article 25-A which lays the entire onus of providing school education on the state. Passing the burden onto the private sector needs to be struck off the provincials Acts.

The provincial laws have been in force for over eight years now. Are private schools, especially in rural areas, complying with the laws? Are provincial governments keeping track of its application and prosecuting defaulters for non-compliance? Absence of monitoring reflects badly on the sincerity of the provincial state machinery.

All told, the unmistakable conclusion is that as long as education remains a low priority item on the nation’s agenda, Pakistan’s downhill slide among the comity of nations will continue.

The writer taught physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University

Unfulfilled promises