NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 17

Education in crisis: A personal narrative

Muhammad Zubair was shocked to know that his son was made to stand all day as he had committed the “sin” of telling a member of the Chief Minister’s Monitoring and Evaluation team, in reply to a question, that he had been failing his eighth grade exams for the last three years “because of two teachers”. He is a student at a government boys high school on Multan Road in the suburbs of Lahore.

Sulman Zubair had told the visiting officials that the mathematics and English subject teachers mostly did not take their classes. And whenever they come to the class, they beat him and other students badly. The next day when he reached school, his class in-charge ordered him to stand in a corner of the classroom. He was not allowed to sit all day though other teachers also came to his class.

Muhammad Zubair, a security guard at a local market, when reached the school the next day to lodge a complaint, he was given a very cold response by the headmaster as well as the class teacher. They rejected the “allegation” that Sulman was made to stand all day for complaining to the visiting official about the “inefficient teachers”.

“If you are not satisfied with his education in this school, take him to some private school. We have up to 50 students in each class and we can’t give him lessons exclusively and individually,” the father was told in a bitter tone.

The teachers’ harsh tone and various people’s good opinion about a better teaching environment in private school forced Zubair to admit his son to a private school. Within a week, he found another part-time job for him and admitted his son to a local private school the next month. Working 16-18 hours a day was really hard for Muhammad Zubair, but he was happy as his son was quite satisfied with the new school environment.

“This year, I will pass my examination on my own and get very good marks in all subjects,” Sulman made a pledge to his father.

How much improvement the boy will show in his upcoming exams is yet to be seen, but a World Bank (WB) report on education in Pakistan, as well as other South Asian nations, makes two clear references to his story. The WB report says that the poor quality of education is holding back the regional nations, including Pakistan.

The report recommends handing over the educational sectors of Pakistan, India and other states to the private education sector. The Bank believes that the South Asian governments could not afford improving educational standards and they cannot afford to improve educational quality by themselves.

According to one of the five recommendations, the private sector is already playing a major role in education and governments should encourage greater private-sector participation by easing entry barriers and encouraging well-designed public-private partnerships.

The report says that the poor quality of education in South Asia, as reflected in low learning levels, traps many of its young people in poverty, stunting economic growth and prosperity. The Bank says the governments in the region have recognised that they should now do more to improve the quality of education in schools, after having achieved tremendous progress in increasing schooling access over the past decade.

“Just spending time in school is not enough. There has to be a significant gain in skills that require an improvement in the quality of education,” said a WB official. “This will help countries in the region to reap the full expected returns on their investments and generate gains in productivity and economic growth.”

About the quality of education in most South Asian nations, the report says that students are poorly prepared in practical competencies such as measurement, problem-solving, and writing of meaningful and grammatically-correct sentences. One quarter to one third of those who graduate from primary school lack basic numeracy and literacy skills that would enable them to further their education.

It is no surprise that employer surveys confirm that inferior education systems and the shortage of skills are constraining private sector investment. “The poor quality of education in South Asia is a major obstacle to the region’s future economic prospects,” said Halil Dundar, an education specialist at the World Bank. “Raising education quality in South Asia is an urgent priority that could transform the region’s economic landscape,” he believes.

In concluding paragraphs, the report recommends a multi-pronged strategy that includes initiatives outside the education sector to address education challenges in South Asia.

The first recommendation is about improving school-going children’s health. It is mostly observed that children of poor families attending government sector schools are weak and suffering from malnutrition. The report stresses the need to ensure that young children get enough nutrition. South Asia has the world’s highest rates of childhood malnutrition and this has a damaging effect on their ability to learn. “Investing in early-life nutrition, with appropriate coverage and age targeting, is critical to offset those disadvantages and can be a highly cost-effective investment in the quality and efficiency of education,” the report says.

The second recommendation is about raising the teacher quality. Many South Asian teachers barely know more than their students. For example, surveys from India and Pakistan show that teachers perform poorly in math and language tests based on the curriculum they are supposed to teach. The report says that higher and clear standards must be enforced, absenteeism curbed, and non-merit-based promotions halted among teachers.

The report also suggests using financial incentives to boost education quality. When extra resources have been available, they have gone to higher pay for teachers, reducing class sizes or improving facilities. This has not always brought learning improvements. A better use of the resources would be to link them to need and student performance, adds the report.

The last recommendation is about improving the measurement of student progress: Governments have already begun moving in this direction but need to do more to improve the quality and reliability of assessments and benchmarking national learning outcomes against international standards, says the report.