A cliched narrative on education | Asad Palijo

Our society is not at peace with itself due to growing intolerance. From Khyber to Karachi, there is an unequivocal call for bringing education reforms and for the promotion of inclusiveness and tolerance. An increasing number of voices are clamouring for reforms in the public-sector school system to help discourage parents from sending their children to madrassas. What is it that makes society ostracise madrassa education? If we compare infrastructure and facilities at madrassas to the schools in the public sector, we will find that the former are in fact better equipped, more organised and disciplined than the latter. Yet when it comes to meeting the modern education aspirations of citizens, the madrassa education system falters. In the present age, parents attach importance to an all-encompassing modern education that encourages critical thinking and promotes inclusiveness.

Research by Alif Ailaan shows that 24 million children of school-going age are out of schools. This is the potential number of lives that can go astray if Pakistan fails to act now. Efforts are required to curate young minds in becoming responsible citizens of tomorrow. Alif Ailaan employs learning outcomes as one of the factors to determine a region’s education performance. This is a barometer for gauging the knowledge of students based on an individual’s ability to write his/her name, read a paragraph in English, Urdu or in a regional language as well as solve two-digit arithmetic sum. Unfortunately, fundamental training in social studies, science, history, geography and civic sense is outside the realm of possibilities for students in public-sector schools. Schools have become nurseries of reductive minds that lack the dynamism and ingenuity that can only be nurtured through quality education.

This brings us to the very root of the education conundrum, i.e., are we asking the right questions? The current national dialogue on education includes teacher absenteeism, student attendance, derelict infrastructure and facilities, ghost teachers and non-viable schools and a complete lack of monitoring and evaluation of the district education budgets. These are all very good questions and fall within the ambit of one of the two core functions of the Education and Literacy Department — service delivery and curriculum development. Nonetheless, prioritising delivery over content is akin to putting the metaphorical cart before the horse. Since we continue to ask the wrong questions, the solutions generated are also off the mark.

There is this great surge for biometric verification and attendance of school teachers, and on monitoring and evaluation of performance with the help of mobile application platforms along with similar shiny wrappers that are high on style but low on substance. High on style because of the prevalent national culture of pursuing eye-catching, shiny development schemes ala metro buses, flyovers and biometrics that make the system look magnificent and ornamental. Add to this the donor expectations for prompt results, which makes any serious effort to overhaul education content non-rewarding in the short term. This is because the results of a well-rounded syllabus can only be reaped in a generation’s time — this is akin to a lifetime in the current smash and grab culture where political longevity is calculated in terms of prospects of success in the 2018 general elections.

Who is to blame for the current mess that our education system is in? General Zia for putting a ban on student unions and introducing a culture of violence on university campuses? The federal governments of the 1990s which failed to reverse Zia-ism or more recently the provincial governments, which post-18th Amendment, have not taken concrete steps to streamline the education curriculum? This is a missed opportunity since the destiny of nations can change within a span of a single generation if the right knowledge is imparted. The relevant authorities in their defence point towards judicial interventions in their reforms drive, the high number of non-viable schools built during the previous system of local governance under General Musharraf and the major chunk of the education budget used to service salaries. However, since 2008 the reins have been firmly in the hands of provincial governments and hence this line of argument loses steam. Civil society, media and development organisations have added their two cents to the national education conversation by highlighting the sorry state of affairs and now the impetus is on policymakers to shed their intellectual laziness, stop chasing self-promoting projects and actually get to work. There is a need to train teachers and revise the education policies to integrate indigenous history, languages, heritage and values into the narrative because only an ideology based on inclusivity can overcome the nefarious ideology that has seeped into our society and no amount of NAP, policing or patrolling can check extremism in the same manner as education can.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2016.

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