Quest for quality —Alefia T Hussain

The government is not oblivious of its follies and accepts that education in Pakistan suffer from two key deficiencies: access to educational opportunities remains low and quality of education is weak, not only in relation to Pakistan’s goals but also in international comparisons

Soon after taking charge, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif pledged to fight till the last breath for quality education. “We will come up to the expectation of the people and perform such feats which would be remembered by the coming generations,” he vowed.

Sir, the time is ripe to act.

The month of August has been crucial for young students across Pakistan with education boards declaring results and colleges and universities finalising lists of new entrants. This is a defining time when aspiring young students make serious decisions about their careers.

But there is not much to celebrate, particularly in the Lahore, Kasur, Okara and Sheikhupura districts. The secondary and intermediate results for 2008 announced by the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE) are enough to sound alarm bells:

112,782 passed the annual matriculation examination out of a total of 213,564 students, bringing the pass percentage to about 52.25 percent. Of the total 108,072 students who sat the intermediate examination, 55,704 passed (51.54 percent).

Compared to last year, the passing percentage for matriculation is a slight improvement — from 50.25 percent in 2007 to 52.81 percent in 2008. However, the intermediate level passing percentage has dipped lower — from 72.67 percent in 2007 to 51.54 percent in 2008.

So what do the figures signify? Does the low pass percentage indicate falling standards?

Experts think so. Abbas Rashid, Chairperson Society for the Advancement of Education (SAHE), says that it is a very high failure rate, despite the high prevalence of rote learning, use of guidebooks and corrupt practices within the system.

Dr Anjum Halai, Associate Professor and Head of the Research and Policy Studies Unit at the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development, believes that the results are a sad reflection of the reality that the low standard is not achieved by such a large proportion of students.

Ira Hasan, Head of English Literature and Language at Beaconhouse National University is more hard hitting in her views. She says these are highly unconvincing numbers; besides, pass percentage for exams is rarely trustworthy in Pakistan — “It presents a much rosier picture than reality,” she insists.

Going by the experts’ attack on the results, it is obvious that the quality of the SSC examination and the process of administering the examination leave a lot to be desired, “because our examinations only check the ability of students to rote memorise and reproduce the facts and information transmitted to them by their teachers. It does not reflect deep conceptual learning or higher order thinking,” explains Dr Halai.

For Ira Hasan these exams carry a stigma. “Only those do matric, for instance, who cannot take a better exam such as O-levels.” This, in her opinion, is visible when the students appear for admission tests in colleges, for a BISE certificate holder, writing correctly even a simple paragraph in English is good news.

Speaking only for English, she says, it is amazing to see lack of imagination and creativity in the admission test:

“If asked to write a story, starting the paragraph with ‘Today was my first day…’, 98 percent will carry on to talk of their first day at college. Few if any will make up a story of a first-time experience. The obvious and immediate is what the student will aim for.”

No one disputes that the state-run education system constitutes scores of under-achievements, not only in the districts of Lahore, Kasur, Okara and Sheikhupura but across Pakistan. Thousands of children are leaving school without satisfactory passes. The solution lies in a radical transformation of the education system; from the examination processes to the curriculum to teacher quality to textbooks to improved learning environment and facilities.

The government, however, is not oblivious of its follies and accepts that education in Pakistan suffer from two key deficiencies: access to educational opportunities remains low and quality of education is weak, not only in relation to Pakistan’s goals but also in international comparisons. Alarmingly, the Education Development Index indicates that Pakistan lies at the bottom with Bangladesh — (National Education Policy Draft 2008, issued by the Ministry of Education, Government of Pakistan).

Focusing particularly on secondary and higher education, the National Education Policy draft emphasises that the system as it exists has two shortcomings: it has a narrow base that leaves a large number of young people outside the system, and the quality of skills produced is not well matched with the needs of the labour market.

In addition to these deficiencies is the disparity in schooling for students. Schools operating throughout the country generally range from private to government; English- to Urdu-medium. Each school sets its own standards — thus contributing immensely to the inequalities in our society. It either leaves out the already marginalised segments, particularly girls, or further aids the elitist notion of education, which is predominantly driven by market forces.

Shortcomings abound. Also, commitments lack and implementation of policies is poor. But — rather importantly — along the lines we need to ponder on the purpose of education.

“A vast majority of our students are taught through the banking method or through teacher transmission, i.e. the teacher transmits knowledge and the student stores it as in a bank, and reproduces it in the examination. Mostly, our students are prepared and trained to submit to the authority of the teacher,” maintains Dr Halai.

She adds that we need to prepare our students for critical thinking, problem solving and interpersonal skills. “Our students have to learn to be life-long learners, flexible and open-minded so they [can be] positive forces in the society.”

The system permeates gloom. Things have drastically gone wrong. But it is not hopeless. In a recently published report Education in Pakistan — What works and why by the Campaign for Quality Education, some issues of quality education have been highlighted. The report focuses on the positives and links them to possible reforms. One wishes that the people in charge of government education learn from follies and are able to eliminate the barriers that thwart the quality of education.

Alefia T Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Lahore

Source: Daily Times, 29/8/2008

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