Pakistan's education emergency - Al Jazeera English

Pakistan's education emergency

The failure to educate the country's children costs the equivalent of one earthquake a year, according to a new report.

By Nosheen Abbas

A tiny child looks into the camera and timidly states his plight. "A brick fell on my head," he says, almost whimpering. "What happened then?" the interviewer asks. "I got head injuries," he replies simply, obviously traumatised by the crumbling ceiling in his school.

This video clip was part of a presentation shown during the launch of Pakistan's March for Education Campaign. According to the campaign, 30,000 school buildings in Pakistan are in such a poor state that they pose a threat to the wellbeing of the children being taught in them. A further 21,000 schools have no building whatsoever.

These are just two of the shocking facts revealed by the Emergency Education Pakistan report produced by the Pakistan Education Task Force (ETF), which was created in 2009. The task force, which was set up with the approval of Yousuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, is a non-partisan body that includes representatives from federal and provincial governments as well as non-governmental experts. It is co-chaired by Pakistani politician Shahnaz Wazir Ali and Sir Michael Barber, an international expert on education reform and former education advisor to Tony Blair during his time as British prime minister.

Throughout the month of March, the task force is working to raise the profile of the plight of Pakistani education in the hope of building popular demand for action.

'A self-inflicted disaster'

To convey the extent of the challenge facing the country, the report has drawn parallels equating the cost of the failure to educate the country's citizens with the cost of enduring one flood each year, adding: "The only difference is that this is a self-inflicted disaster."

Roughly one-in-ten of the world's primary school aged children who are not in school live in Pakistan - placing Pakistan in second position on the global ranking of out-of-school children.

Arshad Bhatti, the task force's political engagement strategist, believes their mission can be broken down into three main steps: Getting every child into school (something they call the retention and learning stage), while simultaneously improving the management and quality of public schooling and establishing some kind of financial commitment from the government.

Since it briefed the media and relevant technocrats on the report on March 9, the ETF has had high profile meetings with the prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari, the president, and Raza Rabbani, the minister for inter-provincial coordination. But, despite the fact that on April 19, 2010, the government passed an amendment to the constitution which included an article stating the constitutional right of every child to receive an education, collective political will remains questionable.

But Bhatti is optimistic. "The prime minister declared 2011 as the year of education, and we are seeing that senior politicians are taking this seriously," he said, adding: "I think there can be an education revolution when the political will is there."

Tazeen Javed, the task force's communications consultant, says the first phase of the British government-backed campaign will run until the end of March, after which "there will be a phase two and we're going to scale up efforts above and beyond approaching technocrats".

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the campaign is that it was initiated from within the government with the aim of appealing to the government to increase its spending on education. And in the current economic climate, that may be a challenge too far.

Financial obstacles

After the passage of the yearly budget, the Pakistani government decided to increase taxation - in what could be said to have amounted to a 'mini budget'. To meet International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditions, the government is increasing taxation and curbing spending - something that only seems likely to add more rungs to the ladder the ETF must climb if it is to succeed in its aims. In such economic circumstances, it seems unlikely that the education sector will get the share of the budget it both needs and deserves.

"The efforts need to be bipartisan and we want now that if the budget for education can't be increased then they should not decrease it - that is what we have to fight for," says Fasi Zaka, the campaign's spokesman.

The fear that spending on education might, in fact, be cut, is very real; in 2005/2006 the Pakistani government spent 2.5 per cent of its budget on schooling, it now dedicates just 1.5 per cent of its budget to education. That is less than the subsidies given to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), Pakistan Electric Power Company (PEPCO) and Pakistan Steel.

In addition, when provinces are allocated funds for education they often fail to spend all the money - mainly due to a lack of absorption capacity. The ETF is hoping to combat this via a petition that is being circulated on the internet and which it will eventually present to four provincial chief ministers.

"Education is now a constitutional right and the provinces are in the driving seat," says Bhatti. "They need to be convinced that there is a big demand for this, which there is. We need better political leadership now."

Good news?

Provincial governments are promising to take solid steps towards educational reform - and news of action is emerging much more promptly than is usually the case.

According to Bhatti, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, has taken personal responsibility for the campaign in Punjab and is due to announce a far-reaching road map for access to and quality of education. The aim is to accelerate the delivery of the campaign's goals by meeting regularly to keep tabs on the progress of reform. Longer-term trajectories involve real action within the electoral term.

In Balochistan, the chief minister and education secretary have also committed to a plan for the province with a series of immediate steps to be undertaken.

And in the wake of the floods, the planning department of Sindh has realised that it must consolidate smaller schools into larger comprehensive schools and accelerate the delivery of quality education to its residents.

The ETF is working closely with the provincial governments in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan to push this initiative towards the execution phase.

A media revolution

The ETF has been trying to partner with Pakistani media to raise the profile of their campaign and in the weeks since the Emergency Education Pakistan report was launched there have been 60 news articles, including op-eds, and six television shows on the topic. More are expected in coming weeks.

But with the media frenzy surrounding the Raymond Davis story – the CIA contractor charged with killing two Pakistani men in Lahore – and the cases of two high profile Pakistani politicians who were murdered over their positions on the country's blasphemy law, to say the competition for column inches is intense is an understatement.

And education has traditionally been a near invisible topic in the Pakistani media. "We wanted to make noise about this issue," Tazeen says. And it seems to be working. Zardari was quoted using the term "education emergency" during a meeting with the minister of education and literacy in Sindh on March 15.

The ETF is understandably taking credit for this statement as no political figure in Pakistan has ever previously publicly referred to the deplorable state of Pakistani education as an emergency.

But will the hype the ETF has managed to manufacture last? And will it translate into results?

"Proliferation of the media hasn't been good - for example, as it was on Governor Taseer's assassination. But across the political divide people have gone against news pressure, those who are invested in the good of Pakistan," says Zaka.

He believes that while the hype about education will eventually die down, it will leave a trail behind it. "There's been repetition of information and it'll keep coming up in the future," he says. "It won't be a concentrated effect but the education debate has been reset."

A global dimension?

Despite there being no proven direct correlation between the absence of education and extremism, the ETF feels that all of Pakistan's problems can ultimately be traced - directly or indirectly – back to its public education system.

"It's what we're teaching, the nuanced information, the books, the curriculum or just simply the lack of everything," says Zaka.

But, interestingly, Pakistani higher education was rated extremely highly during a recent 'Going Global' conference in Hong Kong.

"When you are spending and it is working you don't want to touch it," says Zaka. "But when it comes to law and governance issues, primary and secondary education is extremely important."

Looking within

While political will is being nurtured by the ETF, power holders and politicians must begin by improving the state of education in their own constituencies. It is also important to raise the profile of teaching – a profession widely viewed among the general public as a last resort after attempts at pursuing other career paths have failed. The value attributed to academia must also be increased.

The role of women – or rather the lack of it – in the process of national progress is perhaps the most critical element of Pakistan's education challenge. According to the Emergency Education report, in a population of approximately 160 million people, fewer than half of all Pakistani women have ever been to school – a figure that drops to just 35 per cent in rural areas. And, according to the World Bank, educating girls delivers a higher return than any other investment in the developing world.

With at least seven million children out of primary school, the report bursts the myth that there is not a high demand for education from parents, revealing that only four per cent of those whose children are not in school say they have "no use for education".

So far, politicians have made lofty promises to improve education, but they have all too often shown more bark than bite. Only sincere leadership can now stop the country from being swallowed whole by Pakistan's worst emergency to date.

MORE FROM AL JAZEERA
Nepal: The Maoist dream

Nepal: The Maoist dream

Nepal's bloody civil war ended in 2006 when a Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed between the Maoist rebels and the Nepali state in Kathmandu. Many people have disappeared or got killed during the war. Al Jazeera tells this story through the eyes of the Nepali people.

War & Conflict, Nepal, Asia

MUST-SEE PROGRAMMES