No issue is more consequential to Pakistan’s fate and fortunes than a transformation in the coverage and quality of education offered to our children
DR MALEEHA LODHI
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]akistan has a national crisis in education in dire need of a national response. But the responsibility to deal with this rests with the provinces after the 18th Constitutional Amendment.
To urge a national response is not to argue for rollback of the amendment – a political impossibility. It is to emphasise the need for the federal government to a) show leadership on this critical policy front; b) evolve a mechanism, like all good federal systems do, to address key issues nationally; and c) to mobilize consent and coordination from provincial authorities to act urgently on education.
No issue is more consequential to Pakistan’s fate and fortunes than a transformation in the coverage and quality of education offered to our children. Yet the present abysmal state of play in education holds a bleak future for the country.
The facts are grim. Pakistan has the world’s second largest number of children out of school. Twenty-five million children or almost half of children from 5 to 16 years of age do not go to school. Two thirds of them are girls.
Among those who attend school, 46 percent drop out before completing primary education. The net enrollment rate at primary school is 57 percent, but this falls dramatically to 22 percent in middle school. Just 50 percent of girls have ever attended any school. In rural Pakistan only 39 percent have been to school.
All this is an inevitable consequence of the neglect of education over decades and chronic under spending by successive governments on education. At less than two percent of GDP today, this is the lowest in South Asia. Pakistan is fifth among countries that spend the least on education.
Unless this situation can be reversed Pakistan will, among other challenges, confront a demographic disaster. The country’s working age population is expected to double in the next twenty years. Young people are pouring into the job market at a rapid pace, but many lack education or the skills to be gainfully employed.
Without expanding the scale and quality of education, these young people will face a jobless and hopeless future. A failed demographic transition will have serious social and economic repercussions for the country.
This should be reason enough to spur the country’s leaders into treating education as a national emergency. But past governments have given little priority to education – except in conversations with donors. Official rhetoric about ‘educating Pakistan’ has never translated into commitment to allocate adequate financial resources to invest in education, much less execute a comprehensive plan to give every Pakistani child the right to an education.
No champions of education reform have emerged. Worse, education became a victim of patronage politics. For several decades the bar for qualification of teachers in state schools was lowered to accommodate their hiring on political grounds.
This was accompanied by a brick and mortar approach, which saw the construction of schools that were barely functional as they lacked basics including teachers. Many became famously known as ‘ghost schools’. A culture of unaccountability aggravated the situation as education standards continued to slide in state-run institutions.
And while impressive private sector initiatives emerged as a response to this situation, they mostly served the well to do rather than the majority of children denied schooling by the state. In any case, these initiatives could not have filled the gap between rising public demands for education and official slack in this sector.
Against this backdrop of state neglect and deteriorating state schools, the 18th Amendment transferred, carte blanche, all the center’s remaining education functions to provinces, even if jurisdiction over running schools and colleges and recruitment and training of teachers had long rested with provincial governments.
The immediate and deleterious consequence of this was to enable the federal government to wash its hands off this issue and use the amendment as an alibi to claim it had no responsibility in this area, other than for higher education.
No federation in the world abdicates its responsibility in such a crucial area. And no federal government absolves itself of the need to play an overarching coordinating role to ensure balanced education development, maintain quality and provide oversight to establish clearly articulated national standards.
The federal government’s effort to wash its hands off education is at odds with the constitutional obligation set out by the 18th Amendment: the right of every child to education. Article 25A calls on “the state” to “provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years”.
If there are 25 million instances of violation of this article every day, whose responsibility is it to prevent or stop this? Surely it is the federal government’s responsibility by taking the lead and getting provinces to comply, even as both should become co-guarantors to provide every child an education.
Other than increase financial allocations for education, the federal government has a role to play on several big picture issues. They include framing a national curriculum, data collection and monitoring for national benchmarking and evolving common standards to assure quality across the country. Donor coordination too has to be streamlined at the federal level to avoid confusion and mispriorities in international development assistance.
The most compelling case for a robust federal role is the prevailing disparity both in provincial governance capacity and income/education levels between regions. One of the unintended consequences of the 18th Amendment has been to reinforce provincial disparities in education. A recent survey of district education rankings by Alif Ailaan and SDPI offers a stark perspective in this regard.
The survey shows wide variations in the quality of education between provinces and districts. The majority of top ranking districts are from Punjab. Significantly, no district from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Sindh ranked among the country’s top 20.
Northern Punjab districts dominate the education rankings, followed by central districts, but with the south performing poorly. Sindh, other than Karachi, also does poorly as do districts in Balochistan. Some districts of KP show improvement but overall the education picture shows a decline in achievement scores and gender parity.
These findings are, of course, consistent with and mirror the variation in levels of social-economic development between provinces. But this only strengthens the point that given provincial disparities in education levels, the central government has an obligation to act vigorously to reduce or remove inequities, and correct unequal access and gender imbalances.
So what should the federal government do? First and foremost, come up with a mechanism, or use an existing institution, such as the Council of Common Interests, to evolve agreement on national policy goals including measures to address regional disparities. A common curriculum should be framed and arrangements put in place to establish national standards.
As provinces spend the money they get from the federal government (they barely raise any resources themselves), the center should leverage this fiscal reality to ensure that provincial authorities devote a larger proportion of these resources to education.
Negotiations for the next National Finance Commission award, to determine federal transfers to the provinces, are due to commence in the not too distant future. This is an important vehicle by which the center can secure increased education expenditure by provinces by conditioning enhanced transfers on such spending.
There are many ways and avenues available to the federal government to evolve a national response to Pakistan’s education emergency provided it is motivated or inspired to play such a role, and can summon the political will to do this.
It is, after all, investment in education that can change the destiny of the country, not the distribution of laptops and similar actions by the government, which trivialize the challenge at hand rather than address it.