EducationNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 10

Poor at home, poor at learning

Abid Hussain’s helplessness is quite visible on his face. His poor parents have high hopes of him and he understands it fully. A sixth grader at a government high school in the Sattukatla suburban area of Lahore, knows it well that his parents, especially his father, wanted to see him a “big” officer after he completes his education.

A domestic help-cum-gardener, Nazir Hussain, his father, tells him almost daily that he would quit his job the day he would bring his first pay home as an officer. The youngest of his four female siblings, Abid Hussain can’t tell his father frankly that he is learning nothing in school, and he is admonished by his teachers almost daily for not joining their tuition classes.

In classroom, the science teacher loves to listen to only songs on his mobile phone or from his students, and seldom asks his students to open their textbooks. The second teacher, the English subject teacher, never teaches any lesson in classroom, and only asks his students to answer the questions, put by him. All his classmates tell him from time to time to join the teacher’s academy at his house if he wants to learn something or pass his exams. But he can’t do it as his father neither affords the tuition fee nor likes the “tuition” idea. From class one to five, he has passed his exams somehow, though he is unable to read even class two or three textbooks.

Abid Hussain definitely falls in the category of thousands of students who go to school regularly but learn almost nothing, despite spending years in government educational institutions. A recently launched World Bank (WB) report “Learning Target” says that three in four children in Pakistan cannot read and understand a simple story by age 10. The report highlights that learning poverty in Pakistan is at 75%, which is substantially higher than the average in South Asia of 58%. According to the report, 27.3% of all children remain out of school, which particularly affects girls, who are more likely to never be enrolled and to drop out faster in early adolescence.

The World Development Report 2018 pointed out that the learning deficit begins in early childhood and persists throughout a student’s educational trajectory. Failure to diagnose the problem early eventually results in a poorly skilled workforce which spells doom for a country’s economic future.

Maha Qasim, a researcher, says that in some developing nations, education systems have failed to sufficiently prepare graduates entering the workforce. Surveys conducted by the World Bank show that many workers take up jobs that require minimal amounts of reading or math, since they can barely read or do basic arithmetic. Further, in a rapidly changing technological landscape, workers are required to update their skill-set regularly.

WB Global Director for Education Jaime Saavedra believes that not being able to read by age 10 means that a child is learning poor. What is required is a learning revolution that involves everyone: parents, teachers, school principals, policymakers, and partners to rally around one goal: getting rid of learning poverty, he says.

The latest Annual Status of Education Report also highlighted some of the glaring shortfalls in Pakistan’s education system. School enrolment stands at 81%, and only half of the children in fifth grade can read a story in their native language and less than half a sentence in English or divide 48 by 15, adds the report.

The ASER report found out that children enrolled in private schools are ahead of their government counterparts in all three categories: reading in their native language and English as well as in mathematics. For parents who can’t afford private school fees, this disparity further amplifies the learning gap. Poor children are already at a disadvantage due to the less-than-ideal conditions at home. Unfortunately, the current education system ensures that they remain locked into lives of poverty.

Dr Irshad Ahmad Farrukh, secretary, National Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (NACTE) Pakistan, believes that private schools are no longer an urban or elite phenomenon. Even poor households are also using these facilities to a large extent, due to their better locations, reasonable fees, teachers’ presence and better-quality learning, especially in the fields of mathematics and language. Even though private schools started off as an urban phenomenon, more recently they have mushroomed in rural areas as well, he tells Cutting Edge.

However, he does not fully agree with the assertion that private schools are providing quality education. He believes the learning levels for both types of institutes remain poor in an absolute sense. The private schools’ advantage over the public schools is marginally up if you look at the problems of education in the country holistically speaking, he adds. Therefore, the policy developers should cater to supporting and improving both sectors and not either of the two, he suggests.

The World Development Report findings show that due to debilitating factors, ranging from malnutrition to lack of parental support, insalubrious home environments and financial barriers, poor children learn the least, which hurts them the most. To break out of the low-learning trap, the World Bank recommends a complementary three-pronged approach. First, measure learning through proper metrics, second, incorporate innovative evidence-based approaches to learning in the classroom, and third, streamline the learning process by ensuring that all parts of the education system work in tandem.

Shehzad Roy, a singer, social worker and education campaigner, believes that reforming government schools is the solution to Pakistan’s education crisis. In an informal talk with Cutting Edge at an education workshop in the federal capital recently, he criticised the government curriculum. He stresses that it must be authored by private individuals. He strictly believes that the present state of affairs in terms of educational standards is solely due to the government institutions. Roy says importance must be given to teachers’ evaluation. Both federal and the provincial governments need to do a lot more for improving the education system.

Shafqat Mahmood, Minister for Federal Education and Professional Training, agrees in principle to address the issue of learning poverty. At a WB organised programme in Islamabad, he tells Cutting Edge all stakeholders will have to not only ensure that the maximum number of children go to school but also ensue that they are provided with quality education there.

The minister claimed that the government was focusing on efforts to revamp the curriculum to meet the current and future requirements, build the capacity of teachers through training, and introduce innovative ways of learning. Shafqat agreed to an assertion that quality education is a key to building human capital. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led coalition governments in the Centre and Punjab are ensuring the equality of opportunities geographically and across various streams of education, he said.

Shafqat Mahmood 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. He claimed that plans were under way to reorganise the ministry and establish a policy and research unit to analyse critical information on student learning outcomes, school data and education financing from across the country to devise better policies, and improve decision-making.