EducationVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 07

Education standards: looking for a silver lining

The standard of education in Pakistan has gone down drastically over the decades, believes MA Hassan Chaudhry, the principal of a high school, situated at Ferozpur Road, Lahore. He recalls that when he was a fifth grader at a middle school in a village of Bahawalnagar district over 40 year ago, the class in-charge teachers used to put the class to Urdu spelling tests (Imla) and dodging tables (paharay tokmay) almost on a daily basis. During the tests, the teachers used to utter any Urdu word in the class to write it on a takhti (wooden tablet), or ask their students any dodging tables from 2 to 20. Interestingly, majority of students would perform very good and many a time they would produce 100% correct results, recalls the principal in his late 50s.
“But today, when I dictate any ninth or tenth grader some Urdu words, they always cut a sorry figure and prove to be a big failure,” regrets the principal. “And more painfully, even if you ask a college or university student to pen a few lines in Urdu or English, almost 95% would fail to write a spelling error-free paragraph,” adds the senior teacher, an MPhil in Physics from the Punjab University Lahore. “You watch a private television channel for some time, or read any news item in any newspaper, you will come to know what is the standard of education being imparted to students these days,” says the principal.
Hassan Chaudhry is not the lone protesting voice in the country. The World Development Report 2018, titled “Learning to Realise Education’s Promise”, highlighted the threat of schooling without learning in Pakistan, saying substandard education was not only a wasted opportunity for developing human resource, but also a great injustice to children and youth in the country.
Jim Yong Kim, World Bank group president, had called the “learning crisis” a “moral and economic crisis”. The report said that education alone is not enough, as learning and acquiring skills was what truly enabled a student to make a difference in their and others’ life. Shedding light on the state of schooling in Pakistan, the World Bank said two-fifths of grade 3 students in urban centres could not perform a two-digit subtraction, such as 54-25, and the average rose to three-fifths in rural areas.
Listing the reasons for the failure of the schooling systems, the WB report highlighted four key problem areas: unskilled and unmotivated teachers, unprepared learners, limited school inputs (budget, learning resources and material) and poor governance and school management that affect learning. The report proposed three focus areas that could reduce the learning gap and allow a level playing field to students. The first step is to assess learning so it can become an assessable goal. It focuses on analysing the shortfalls and putting “in place good metrics for monitoring whether programmes and policies are delivering learning”.
The second step is to “act on evidence — to make schools work for all learners”, while the final step is to align actors to make the whole system work for learning by involving politicians, civil society, judiciary etc. for social mobilisation and removal of impediments, as well as for involvement in the educational process.
Faisal Bari, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, says poor learning outcomes have been known for a long time in the country. “All of the tests, examinations conducted in Pakistan have indicated low learning outcomes,” he shares with Cutting Edge. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has been documenting these poor outcomes for years. But state attention on the issue of quality of education and learning has been more recent, he notes.
The educationist says the ASER 2018 (Annual Status of Education Report), launched recently, showed some gains in learning across Pakistan compared to learning outcomes in 2016. However, Bari says, “We will have to wait for 2020 to find out whether the gains are maintained. Still in parts of Balochistan and Sindh, small gains, no gains were made,” he says. Faisal Bari notes that the gap in learning outcomes between children going to private and public schools have not been bridged yet, with private schoolchildren doing better than their public school peers. “All this is despite the fact that private school students, on average, continue to receive more after-school coaching (tuitions). This would be very interesting to follow up on over the next few years,” believes the educationist.
Some recent developments also show that government authorities are not totally oblivious to the crisis. Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood told Cutting Edge at an education workshop last month that a comprehensive policy had been finalised to improve education standards in the country. He said all provincial governments, education departments as well as international partners had been consulted during the past one year to launch special campaigns to enhance the literacy rate in the country and improve educational standards. He told Cutting Edge that he had met World Bank President David Malpass few months back to discuss possible ways about how Pakistan’s learning poverty could be addressed.
The WB president was in Pakistan as the head of a delegation and Pakistan’s minister for education and professional training looked in the solutions that could help the country achieve its goal of ensuring that every child is able to read by the age of 10 years. The meeting took stock of critical actions needed by the government to help Pakistan come out of its “learning poverty.”
Shafqat Mahmood assured the WB delegation the government was ensuring equality of opportunities, geographically and across various streams of education. He explained the key initiatives the education ministry was undertaking to reform the education system in Pakistan, especially with regards to implementing a uniform curriculum in the county.
The minister shared his plans with Cutting Edge, saying that plans had been under way to reorganise the ministry and establish a policy and research unit to analyse critical information on students learning outcomes, school data and education financing from across the country to devise better policies, and improve decision making. He said that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led coalition government believes in political, financial and management coordination to ensure that the country could bring students back to school and improve learning outcomes to enhance productivity and economic growth.
Like the federal minister, the boys high school principal, MA Hassan Chaudhry, is also optimistic about increase in the literacy rate and improvement in education standards in the years to come. He says he had served at the Civil Secretariat Punjab Education Department as well as various projects for over a decade. “But now I have decided to spend remaining years of my service in schools to make efforts for improving learning levels among students,” he says. “The target of imparting quality education to students could be achieved even today if only 50pc of teachers in the country decide that they would not compromise on quality of education in their respective schools,” the principal says with conviction.