The financial condition of Muhammad Ishaq Mehar has deteriorated so rapidly during the past seven years that he had to make various decisions which were once unthinkable for him. He is a landless farm worker. Ten years back or even in the earlier years, he used to make a respectable living through working in fields. Though an under-matriculation, yet he is well aware of the importance of an education for his children.
He had admitted his two daughters and a son to a private school in Yazman Mandi city, a tehsil of Bahawalpur district, though he along with his family lived in a village, about seven kilometres from the town. He believed private schools imparted a better education, hence he decided to admit his children to a costly private school in the city, instead of a free government school in his village.
However, the situation started changing at a fast pace, reducing his chances of getting work on farmlands. Even peasants were facing hard times, as they were not getting reasonable returns for their crops, what to talk of farm labourers. Ishaq Mehar had to shift his daughters and son to the government school in his village. His children, who have studied in a private school with better conditions, tell him on a daily basis that they are not getting good education in their school.
“Students of two classes, six and seven, are made to sit in the same classroom,” Mehar is told by his daughter Afshan Ishaq. “Due to so much noise in the class, I cannot comprehend properly what our teacher is teaching us.” She keeps speaking to the students of both classes, and most students fail to understand what they have been taught by the teacher. He visited the school to ascertain the actual situation and was informed by the headmistress that they were short of classrooms as well as teachers. She said she had to accommodate students of two classes in big rooms to save them from severe cold. The poor farmer returned home, finding the teachers even more helpless than him.
The multi-grade teaching issue has also been highlighted in detail by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019. The Report, published after a national rural survey by the Idara-e Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), revealed that 46% of government and 26% of private schools impart multi-grade teaching at grade two.
Also, in grade four, multi-grade teaching was found 18% in both government and private schools, and a teacher taking multiple grade classes in government middle schools rose from 5% in 2018 to 18% in 2019.
The finding also explains the situation of parents, like Ishaq Mehar. The ASER rural results showed a decline in the number of children admitted to private sector schools. A 7% decline was observed in enrolment, the number which was close to 30% in 2014 had , there has also been a visible increase indropped to 23% in 2019. On the other hand enrolment at government schools, from 70% in 2014 to 77% in 2019.
While it reflected the economic condition of the parents on the one hand, as they were forced to withdraw their children from private schools and admit them to government schools due to their financial constraints. On the other hand, it also showed government’s apathy. Despite getting official data from schools on at least a yearly basis, education authorities are not ready at all for increasing the number of teachers as well as classrooms.
The report stressed government authorities that the increase in public school enrolment must be maintained. And this can only be done if the state continues to make active efforts. The ASER has also been an authority in tracking Early Childhood Education (ECE). Since 2014, the ASER noted that there has been no significant improvement which remained stagnant at 39% from 2014-2019. Nonetheless, the report suggested that ECE was critical for foundational learning readiness in literacy and numeracy; therefore, it is crucial to increase enrolment.
The latest survey, carried out by around 10,000 volunteers, showed that 87% of private primary schools had boundary walls as compared to 75% of government primary schools. The report says functional toilets were available in 59% public and 89% private primary schools. Around 10,000 volunteers visited 155 districts in 4,546 villages to conduct the ASER survey from 92,008 households and 255,266 children of age 3-16 years.
For the year 2019, the ASER rural survey assessed 202,648 children of 5-16 year age cohort in language (Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto), English, and arithmetic competencies mapped to grade 2 curriculum and textbooks. In nine districts, the survey was successfully conducted through androids, testing for at scale survey solutions that are paperless, efficient and transparent.
According to the report, despite recent focus of the federal and provincial governments on enrolment drives to honour the Article 25-A, 17% children aged 6-16 still remained out of school. In contrast, the survey in 20 urban centres across Pakistan reveals only 6% children were out of school.
With the 40% population residing in urban areas, this presents an important opportunity to accelerate universal access for the urban 5-16 year olds, whilst simultaneously focusing on rural areas. The report also highlights some positive outcomes of the survey, revealing that language and arithmetic skill in grade five students had remarkably improved over the last couple of years. However, children in early years of education continue to lag behind in basic-concept learning, and overall literacy, adds the report.
Under the survey rules, children in grade five were observed on the basis of whether they could read, and comprehend concepts aimed at second grade students. A keen observation of trends from 2014-2018 showed a rise of 4% from 13% to 17%, in linguistic and arithmetic skill of primary level students. The report showed that 59% children enrolled in grade five could read text meant for second standard children, primarily in Urdu or other regional languages. It further said that only 55% of surveyed children could read English texts designed for grade two students.
Since 2018, the report showed that there had been an improvement in arithmetic learning levels, with 57% grade fivers able to successfully perform double-digit divisions. And even more pleasant was to note that 60% of children can read the time, and 53% can easily solve multiplication word problems.
According to estimates, 22.8 million children aged 5-16 are currently out of school. The major challenge for any government is to provide education to the underprivileged, disadvantaged children living in the remotest areas of the country.
During the past some years, the focus had been on enrolment as per the Article 25-A of the Constitution which emphasises the provision of universal elementary education. However, with a staggering number of children out of school, the dream is impossible to realise. The survey found teachers’ attendance in both government and private almost the same at 89%. However, a disparity between educational qualifications of teachers in the two sectors was shockingly apparent. Over 40% of staff teachers in private schools had graduate level education compared to the 33% in the government sector. However, in case of MA, MSc and other post-graduate qualifications, a greater percentage of public sector teachers had higher qualification than their private school counterparts.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf governments in the Centre, Punjab and KP have been talking about overhauling the entire education sector from time to time. However, the continued dismal state of affairs at grassroots level keeps negating the “All is well” narrative. Prime Minister Imran Khan, chairing a cabinet meeting on February 18, directed the authorities to solve all education sector problems and address the shortage of teaching staff by valuing education as an emergency need. He said knowledge was linked to a bright future and vowed to provide all necessary resources to ensure quality education at public sector educational institutions.
However, it is obvious that Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood, who was present at the launch of ASER 2019, as well as the cabinet meeting, would have not dared apprise the premier of the report findings. It is a hard reality that verbosity and hollow claims would not provide quality education to upcoming generations. The media statements would only add to the frustration of people, like Ishaq Mehar, in the country, who want their children to get good education and change the fate of their families.