THE year 2011 has brought new opportunities for Pakistan`s political leadership to resolve the education crisis with renewed gusto. However, the leadership needs to demonstrate a similar commitment to tackle the education emergency as Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif did in agreeing to the Charter of Democracy. But first, a glance at the size and seriousness of this crisis we have over 50 million children (five to 16 years) to educate, which is more than South Africa`s population. We have over 18 million children with no access to school, which is more than Chile`s population. The majority of such children are girls andor from poor families living in rural areas or urban slums.
Till now the provision of education in Pakistan was a privilege set out in principles of policy and the responsibility to provide education depended on the availability of resources. But the 18th Amendment changed the game by declaring that the provision of `free and compulsory` education to all children is a basic right (whose denial can be challenged in court) and by devolving responsibility of the provision to the provinces, who are variously prepared for this challenge.
Interestingly, the prime minister declared 2011 the `year of education` on Dec 11, 2010 in Lahore. A few months earlier the Global Campaign for Education ranked Pakistan 46th out of the world`s 60 least-educated countries. One does not know what impelled the prime minister but the GCE rankings are based on political will for education, quality and learning, equal opportunities and universal basic education. They term Pakistan`s `political will for education` as the worst-performing indicator.
It can be argued that doing more of the same by similar meanswon`thelp, but the provinces can do, say in six years, what the federation did not deliver in 60 years, by doing it differently. Taking brief stock of what we attempted that did not work, we made 10 education policies (from 1947 till 2009). These policies have served as limiting factors, not transforming catalysts. Our policy-to-implementation gap is like having a grand design for a palace but ending up with a tattered tent.
The majority of experts say `more schools, more teachers, more money, and more monitoring` will help. But that is a refrain we have heard too often. It`s time for a different one and to move from the farce of policy to forceful action.
Here, it is pertinent to assert that quality education will ensure deepening of democracy, reduction in militancy and increase in collective prosperity. Therefore, a politically led innovative initiative in seven areas will help us control the education emergency. First, we need a change of leadership. Elected politicians need to replace appointed bureaucrats who are managers, not leaders. Asking a bureaucrat to lead is like asking the wicketkeeper to open the bowling attack in a Twenty20 match.
Second, various numbers are doing the rounds, which confuse more than they convince. Reliable data is essential for viable planning. District-wise statistics of out-of-school children will help in finding what it will cost and how best they could be accommodated in available private and public schools in that area. Making allocations based on guest mates is like hoping to buy a car in a grocery store for the price of two kilos of potatoes.
Third, `management` and `governance` are buzzwords but many don`t know what they entail. It is the state`s responsibility to provide education but not necessarily through government schools steered by executive district officers, where principals or parents don`t have much say. Elected representatives, along with parents, need to be involved in the supportive management of schools. Private schools need regulation for standards, governance and inclusion in return for incentives which other countries have tried, and Pakistan has its share of great exceptions which merit study.
Fourth, we confuse learning (results), schooling (a setting) and education (a process) in thinking, conversation and planning. Education is learning how to learn and how to regenerate that learning. It does not take place at school or through the teacher alone it starts from the cradle, occurs on the street and is tested at every intersection. This instructs us to revise contents, pedagogy and assessments so that learning becomes a yardstick of success instead of a process for gaining certificates for improved socio-economic opportunities. Degrees can be faked, learning can`t the former compels pupils to pass exams, the latter impels them towards real learning.
Proper learning can result from the combined effect of (a) creatively transmitted values, (b) active imagination, (c) tradable life skills and most importantly (d) the best learning of formative years which happens best in the mother tongue. China, Japan, Germany, France and the English-speaking world are manifest examples of this unfortunately ignored reality in Pakistan. Fifth, better managed teachers in more independent schools run by more authorized principals who can choose textbooks and teachers from open sources is critical. Teachers can be better managed by incentivizing performance, holding them accountable for failing and linking postings/transfers with merit and rules. A crucial step is to delink them from election duties thus making them less important for politicians.
Using technology for monitoring and changing their contracts by balancing pride in the profession with the grind of the vocation, quite like the tenure-track system of professors, would help. Letting schools choose the best text would mean winding down the textbook boards.
Sixth, setting minimum and mandatory standards for the public education system`s facilities, services, learning and assessments, and introducing research mechanisms that inform of implementation of policies for timely reform will help hugely. However, an implementer cannot be a regulator and the entity entrusted with enforcing standards should not only be capable but also credible and national. Financing, the seventh challenge, requires far more than blocking a certain percentage of the GDP for education. Unless we know how many children need schooling at what place with credible estimates of per capita cost of educating a child (given that over 30 per cent of budgets in education remain unspent), a mere increase in allocations won`t do any good.
All crises and emergencies offer opportunities to rebuild with renewed resolve. Ours is not any different.
he writer is a former civil servant and a public policy expert.