Our Education Deficit
By Dr Shireen M. Mazari


It is a strange phenomenon that as the number of private educational institutions in the country has increased; the overall standards of education within the country have declined. The public schools fast-declining standards have been a given for many decades now and much has been written on that count. But scant attention is being paid to the burgeoning industry that private schools have become. Yet these are the institutions that a sizeable chunk of our bureaucracy and other elites are eventually drawn from and that is why we have increasingly poorly educated civil servants -- as reflected in the story published in The News on April 2. It was sad rather than funny.
Despite the increasing fees and competitiveness of private schools, it is not difficult to see the declining educational standards that are rampant across the country -- because schools are the nurseries for our universities. Of course, some will contend that our children's performance in the O and A level examinations has seen a steady increase in A grades; but the picture is fudged because many private school systems, especially, compel their weak students to appear as private candidates so that the school picture is artificially rosy!
One of the problems today is that education has become an extremely lucrative business in Pakistan and therefore all manner of private schools are mushrooming around the country -- with no control or accountability system. Some schools have become school systems, and none are answerable to any authority in the country. Parents often get short shrift if they become interventionist, because there are always students waiting to get into one or the other private school. This is not to say that all schools are bad. There are some excellent schools but these are scarce and are exceptions.
The major issue is one of accountability. No one is accountable either for what is being taught in these schools or for how it is being taught. The owners are the final arbiters and can hire, fire and expel at will with no control from any supervisory body. This issue was raised in the present cabinet by the education minister, but vested interests, especially of the private school systems, raised a major hue and cry and that was the end of the issue. But there are some serious issues involved and the government does need to lay down some basic ground rules.
To begin with, there has to be some supervisory body which includes parents and civil society members to oversee private schools and to receive and examine complaints relating to these schools. After all, the multi-branch schools often have six to ten sections in each grade, and each section has over twenty students with only one teacher. So the slower or quieter children often get neglected -- especially in a class of almost thirty students. That is why there is now a growing menace of excessive homework. The teachers are shifting the burden of teaching on to parents at a time when in many families both parents are working. So eventually the norm of private tuitions has become pervasive and often the schools' own teachers provide tuition to their own students thereby earning extra income.
However, this means the children spend a good two to three hours studying after they come home from a full day at school -- hardly a healthy life for young people who need their leisure hours, especially outdoors. Nor is this the only health hazard that confronts the school child of today -- and I am talking of those children whose parents often struggle to meet the costs of private education in the vain hope that this will provide better opportunities in life to their child.
The other basic hazard is that schools are opening up in all manner of residential houses and their conversion to schools requires no building examinations or minimal standards. With crowded classrooms, and often no fire exits, these schools put the children at risk every day. In addition, a lack of professionalism in the teachers, as well as bad student-teacher ratios, encourages violence in schools often leading to injury. Again schools will rarely accept liability or even responsibility for the results of the growing violence in schools.
Coming to the education imparted, since there are no minimal standards to comply with either in terms of course content or teachers' qualifications, women with time to spare suddenly transform themselves into teachers and are allowed to teach subjects in which they are not specialized -- often having studied them only at school or intermediate level. Then there is a high turnover of teachers' themselves since many are simply whiling away their time either till their husbands get posted elsewhere or they themselves get married. It is not uncommon to find children dealing with at least three new teachers for some subjects every year.
Fee structures are also totally controlled by the owners and there is no supervision so as schools become more popular their fees rise higher and parents are presented with a fait accompli. Also, many private schools pay no heed to the government rule that O level students must take up Urdu, Pakistan Studies and Islamiat; while some are inculcating their own political values on to the young children. In any event, the standard of Pakistan Studies is a serious issue and achieves no purpose. Instead, a proper study of the history of this region and the Pakistan movement would be more useful in secondary schools along with world history -- which is presently a major deficit in our educational system. As for Islamiat -- the O level syllabus is absurd because it has a sectarian bias with children being allowed to choose which sectarian version of the subject to take up in terms of the O level examination. In any case, religious instruction should be part of a child's home environment and not a compulsory secondary school subject -- rather an optional one for anyone wishing to specialize in it later. What should be taught in schools -- that is, the national anthem is often missing altogether from some private schools.
In this environment, the government has to take swift and rational action if we are to overcome our education deficit at the primary and secondary school levels. There is a need to lay down minimal standards for the curricula as well as rationalizing it. There is also a need to lay down a minimum pay scale and other facilities and qualifications for teachers. Perhaps most important, there must be supervisory bodies to oversee the functioning of private schools and to take note of complaints from parents. Private schools cannot function in a legal void; hence the need to create laws to regulate and supervise these institutions.
Some of the older and established private schools have their governing boards, but most private schools do not even have these. In any event, with a few exceptions, governing boards are not inclined to be full time watch dogs and an external regulatory authority is needed to ensure that private schools are imparting standardized and quality education, through properly qualified and trained teachers, in safe and properly constructed buildings. The profit motive must be balanced by societal responsibility.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)


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