The challenge for elected governments and for our society is creating a uniform education system with a standard curriculum and examination system. The purpose should not be to pull down standards of private schools or eliminate that option but to improve the quality of the public school system
One of the primary functions of a modern state is to provide universal education to its children at the school level and establish higher tiers for their further development. Why do progressive and modern societies attach so much importance to children and their education?
The answer is very simple: no society can enter the age of modernity, or increase its social capacity to achieve individual and collective good without a well designed, structured public education system.
The importance of public education cannot be overstated, which is globally recognised as a fundamental right of children. The way in which new generations are groomed and developed also determines the shape of the future social order, political economy and culture. In fact, education is the most potent tool for reshaping a society and changing it for the better.
There are also fairly well established norms, procedures and systems through which the goal of educating children at school level can be achieved. Its primary tool is a progressive, enlightened and market-oriented curriculum, which prepares children to think, reflect and explore new ideas and discover their own self.
There is much that has been written and re-written about the philosophy, social utility and primary responsibility of the state and society towards public education. In our country also, we have seen some debate on what is wrong with our public schools and why so many different strands of education exist in the country.
There is some agreement among concerned citizens, public intellectuals and educationists that public schools are not delivering what they are supposed to – critical thinking, intellectual development, and market-oriented professional skills. The state of public education is so bad and the reasons for it so complex that a debate on the subject seems rather daunting, and one cannot comprehend the dire situation easily.
Among the many reasons for the poor state of education in Pakistan, the principal one is poor governance of education from local to provincial levels. All reforms, packages, new policies, borrowed funds and donations from foreign countries have been wasted due to bad educational governance.
Let us start with the most critical level: the local school system – primary, middle and high – and how it is managed and supervised. Our educational districts unlike other countries run parallel to administrative districts. The Education District Officer heads each educational district, a critical unit of administration. Under him are male and female Assistant Education Officers for girls and boys primary schools to supervise publication and report problems like absentee teachers to the EDO. This system has existed in many forms under different regimes, but its efficiency is questionable.
The entire system of educational governance at the district level has become tied to political patronage, which starts with the appointment of EDOs, who come from the ranks of school or college teachers. There is no system of merit in their appointment; generally, ambitious individuals with right administrative and political connections get these positions.
As they are themselves product of political patronage, they run the same system in their districts. The real problem is that primary school teachers are not motivated enough to devote themselves to teaching like the post-independence teachers we were lucky to have. A good number of them today consider teaching a boring profession and want to evade their responsibilities. A very few conscientious teachers take the burden or simply leave classes allocated to absentee teachers. It is not the same story in every district or region though. It depends largely on the local community, social structure and power relations.
Public schools are run much better in northern and central Punjab, larger parts of the settled districts of NWFP, the federal territory and in towns and larger cities. The real collapse or failure in taking off has occurred in southern Punjab, interior Sindh and larger parts of Balochistan, where we have feudal, tribal social orders. The absentee schoolteacher benefits from political patronage since he belongs to a local voting bloc that is very important for political contestants in his district. That is the story behind thousands of ghost schools in the country. The administrative machinery is toothless, corrupt, unmotivated and inefficient.
Most of our educational resources, from policy-making to funding of infrastructure, teachers training, and curriculum design, have been wasted. Increased funds and training have produced very little in terms of changing public education; enrolment has somewhat increased but the quality of education at the primary, middle and high school level has yet to improve to match the standards of fast developing countries.
There is widespread corruption in provincial education departments and the federal ministry of education, and corrupt officials are so well entrenched in the system that attempts to reform public education achieve very little or no results.
Schooling infrastructure and maintenance are allocated meagre funds to begin with, but even from that small pool, very little actually filters down; administrators and contractors siphon off most of it.
There are other important issues besides poor governance and corruption that keep our public education system substandard: poor quality of instruction, irrelevant curricula and a questionable examination system. The failure of public education at the school level has produced class-based streams of education. The lower and middle classes have turned to the private English-medium schools that mostly follow British curricula with the option of the Pakistani Secondary and Higher Secondary school certificate system. Their quality is uneven and they cater to the needs of a tiny relatively affluent minority of society.
Private schools cannot be a substitute for public schooling. Rather, proliferation of private schools and parents’ preference for them is evidence of the lack of trust in the public educational system. The failure to provide quality education to children of the poor and common people of the country would only make the social and economic fields highly uneven, and they would continue to suffer from inequality and fail to achieve socio-economic mobility.
The challenge for elected governments and for our society is that of creating a uniform education system with a standard curriculum and examination system. The purpose should not be to pull down standards of private schools or eliminate that option but to improve the quality of the public school system.
We know the problems facing the public education system, but we don’t have the political will, consistent policy framework, good governance and enough citizen activism on the matter to change it. Will the new federal and provincial governments take on the challenge of reforming public schools?
Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com
Source: Daily Times, 17/6/2008