State of education in Pakistan

November 15, 2020

Despite the stress on education, its higher purpose often remains unachieved

Photo by Rahat Dar

William S Burroughs, the famous American writer, once said, “The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values.”

The words are very relevant today. Securing admission for your child in the most prestigious school around has become a status symbol. The schools are in a cutthroat competition with one another to produce the ‘best’ results in terms of reported grades. What a graduate from such a school still carries after forgetting the many theorems, formulae and key notes, is often no more than proficiency in a foreign language. The higher purpose of education often remains unachieved.

“Education makes a person a better human being, inculcating better habits, which are often missing among the so called educated people these days who are no different in their behaviours than the uneducated,” grieves Hamra Khalique, a writer and an educationist.

In Pakistan, school education is mostly the domain of the private sector rather than the state which has declared its provision a fundamental right. The private sector schools impart certain skills rather well. They do so at a significant cost. An eye for a profit is a part of the business. The business is often thriving, since a large number of parents are willing to pay a small fortune for the education of their off spring. To satisfy the parents, the schools have to produce some evidence that their children have learnt something substantial.

Unable to pay for the private school education, the masses rely on the state or charities. When they get lucky, their child gets to join a school with an adequate building. The parents do not object if there is no roof over the children’s head and no walls around them. The children spend several hours a day at the schools, occasionally scribbling on a slate and chanting a chorus. The parents are elated if the child manages to utter a few words in English.

The child may get lucky and land at a school run by a non-profit, non-governmental organisation working to impart literacy to the destitute. Else, he or she may be sent to a religious seminary.

In 2018, Pakistan’s literacy rate was a little over 60 per cent. The country has the largest out of school population, 22.8 million children, after Nigeria. Only 18 per cent of Pakistani women have received 10 years or more of formal education.

What measures have been taken by the governments in this regard? In 1947, the literacy rate in the region was only 15 percent. A six-year plan for educational development was adopted in 1951. Some believe that the standard of education, although limited to a few institutes, was better than today. “Even about 30 years ago, public sector educational institutes produced professionals of great calibre, proficient in both Urdu and English,” says Farah Imran, who runs a school for the under privileged in Lahore.

On March 29, 1972, a martial law regulation was issued by the then president of Pakistan through which all private educational institutions and their assets were taken over by the government. Some educationists say that this caused a drastic worsening of the standards as the government lacked funds to manage so many educational institutes.

In 2010, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, made provincial governments responsible for matters related to schooling in their jurisdictions. Alif Ailaan, a non-government organisation, comments in its report that “This should have allowed education policy and management to cater more effectively to the needs of the country’s diverse geographical areas as well as its many ethnic and linguistic communities. (However) in practice, (it) has not yet effectively addressed the gaps in service delivery, especially in education.”

Pakistan Education Statistics 2015-16 reported that out of 150,000 primary, middle and high schools across the country in the public sector, more than 6,000 schools were non functional and more than a 1,000 closed.

More recently, the predicaments of Pakistan’s education sector multiplied when coronavirus forced educational institutions to be closed across the country. The government launched an educational television channel, Teleschool, broadcasting lessons from kindergarten through high school and using instructional videos in Urdu and English. Instructional programming, it was announced, was also to be developed for radio since Teleschool was not available to the nation’s poorest families. The poor were further marginalised when students belonging to the higher income groups started getting some instruction through online classes.

This coincided with the introduction of a single national curriculum (SNC) for schools, meant to ensure that all children in Pakistan learn the same material irrespective of the schools they go to.

“Early Childhood Care and Education books aligned with single National Curriculum are age appropriate with all the essence of diversity, inclusion, language and literacy development, physical development, social and emotional development, cognitive development, global citizenship, civic sense, last but not the least ethics and values,” says Shafia Rafique, one of the authors of the books.

Some educationists see positives in the decision. “I believe that there should be a single system throughout the country, although the medium of instruction can be English or Urdu, depending on the segment of the population,” says Farah Imran. The SNC, introduced so far till Grade IV, is meanwhile being criticised for being “antithetical to critical thinking”. The primary focus, the complaint goes, is on the sheer quantity of information. Others worry that the content is being Islamised.

What should be the way forward? “We are about 70 percent agricultural, under debt and loan agreements. Can we provide an education system for the masses that works for both the parents and the schools?” asks Farah Imran. “For the underserved project based and skill based education would work. I think the number of books should be cut and thinking minds with analytical skills should be developed.”

Others recommend greater emphasis on moral education. “We have schools in name only,” laments Hamra Khalique. “The teachers should contribute towards upbringing of the children in their care. Students should not just rote learn, they should also be exposed to ideas that will guide them throughout their lives.”

We all remember the rewards and punishments at school. There are only fading memories of penning some words. But do we remember our school for making us better people? If we don’t, then perhaps there is not much to cherish. As Albert Einstein said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one learnt at school.”

A Freelance Journalist based in Lahore. She has keen interest in and writes on issues related to women, religion, history and society. Can be reached at

State of education in Pakistan