NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 3

Transforming education: A call for urgent reforms

In the heart of South Asia, a pressing concern looms large — the disconcerting state of education. A recent report from the World Bank sheds light on the profound inadequacies plaguing the education systems of many nations in the region. From deficient practical competencies among students to the adverse effects on private sector investment, the report underscores the urgency of addressing these issues for the economic well-being of South Asia.

Muhammad Zubair was taken aback to discover that his son had been subjected to an entire day of standing as a consequence of revealing a disconcerting truth to a member of the Chief Minister’s Monitoring and Evaluation team. In response to a query, his son, Sulman Zubair, disclosed that he had been failing his eighth-grade exams for three consecutive years due to the negligence of two teachers at a government boys high school on Multan Road in the outskirts of Lahore.

During the officials’ visit, Sulman reported that the mathematics and English teachers frequently skipped classes, and when they did attend, they physically abused him and other students. The following day, Sulman was instructed by his class in-charge to stand in a corner throughout the day, barring him from sitting, even when other teachers conducted classes.

When Muhammad Zubair, a security guard at a local market, approached the school the next day to file a complaint, he encountered a dismissive attitude from both the headmaster and the class teacher. They denied the accusation that Sulman had been made to stand all day in response to his complaints about the “inefficient teachers.” The father was curtly advised, “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 harsh response from the teachers and positive feedback about a better learning environment in private schools compelled Zubair to enroll his son in one. Within a week, he secured another part-time job and admitted Sulman to a local private school the following month. Despite the challenges of working 16-18 hours a day, Muhammad Zubair found solace in his son’s contentment with the new school environment.

“This year, I will pass my examination on my own and get very good marks in all subjects,” Sulman pledged to his father. While the extent of improvement in the boy’s upcoming exams remains uncertain, a World Bank (WB) report on education in Pakistan, along with other South Asian nations, prominently features his story. The report contends that poor education quality hampers progress in the region, recommending the privatization of the educational sectors in Pakistan, India, and other states.

According to the report, the private sector already plays a significant role in education, and governments should promote greater private-sector involvement by reducing entry barriers and fostering well-designed public-private partnerships. The WB asserts that subpar education quality in South Asia, reflected in low learning levels, perpetuates poverty among young people, hindering economic growth and prosperity. The report emphasizes that, despite achieving substantial progress in increasing school access, the governments in the region need to do more to enhance education quality.

“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,” emphasized 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.”

The report highlights the subpar quality of education in many South Asian nations, underscoring that students often lack practical competencies such as measurement, problem-solving, and the ability to construct meaningful and grammatically correct sentences. A significant portion, ranging from one-quarter to one-third, of primary school graduates lack fundamental numeracy and literacy skills essential for further education.

Employer surveys corroborate the detrimental impact of inadequate education systems and skill shortages on private sector investment. Halil Dundar, an education specialist at the World Bank, asserts, “The poor quality of education in South Asia is a major obstacle to the region’s future economic prospects,” emphasizing that enhancing education quality is an urgent priority that could reshape the region’s economic landscape.

In its concluding paragraphs, the report advocates for a comprehensive strategy addressing education challenges in South Asia, extending beyond the education sector. The first recommendation focuses on improving the health of school-going children, particularly those from impoverished families attending government schools. Malnutrition and weakness are prevalent among these children, necessitating a concerted effort to ensure adequate nutrition. Given South Asia’s high rates of childhood malnutrition, the report suggests that investing in early-life nutrition is critical for offsetting disadvantages and enhancing the quality and efficiency of education.

The second recommendation targets the enhancement of teacher quality, pointing out that many South Asian teachers possess knowledge barely exceeding that of their students. Surveys from India and Pakistan reveal poor performance by teachers in math and language tests based on the curriculum they are tasked with teaching. The report advocates for the enforcement of higher and clearer standards, the reduction of absenteeism, and the cessation of non-merit-based promotions among teachers.

Financial incentives are proposed as the third recommendation to boost education quality. The report suggests that available resources should be directed towards needs and student performance, rather than solely focusing on higher pay for teachers, reduced class sizes, or improved facilities. The aim is to ensure that resources contribute meaningfully to learning improvements.

The final recommendation pertains to improving the measurement of student progress. While governments have initiated efforts in this direction, the report urges further actions to enhance the quality and reliability of assessments. It advocates benchmarking national learning outcomes against international standards as a means to gauge and elevate the overall educational performance in South Asia.

In conclusion, the report advocates for a holistic and multifaceted approach to uplift South Asian education. Beyond the confines of the educational sector, the recommendations delve into the realms of child health, teacher quality, financial incentives, and improved measurement of student progress. The imperative lies not only in acknowledging the challenges but in embarking on a transformative journey that holds the promise of reshaping the educational landscape and, by extension, the economic future of the region.