From my schooldays in Norway, I recently came to recall a few proverbs we used to talk about. One went something like this: “One must have a strong back to carry prosperous days”. The other one was: “Knowledge is a light burden to carry”. The third one was more a religious: “It is better to give than to receive”, reminding us of sharing and thinking of others as much as of ourselves. We lived in a community and world where people led quite modest everyday lives, with some inequalities, but most people were just average and the same. As we grew older, we discovered that there were greater differences than we had realized as children. We realized that education is a tool for development and prosperity – with returns for the individual and the society.
I was lucky to belong to an age group where everyone who wanted to pursue further education, and did reasonable well at school, could do so. This was in the late sixties, a time with massive expansion of secondary and higher education in Norway and the West. Just a decade earlier, secondary education, especially upper secondary, was a bottle neck in rural areas and also to some extent in towns and cities. Well, upper secondary school, qualifying for university studies, was even in my time in Norway’s second largest city, Bergen, and its surroundings, often seen as being for the select few, not for all.
Professor Emeritus Svein Sjøberg (b. 1943) recently wrote an interesting anecdotal newspaper essay entitled ‘We who hit the plank’ (‘Vi som traff planken’), Aftenposten, Oslo, 2 June 2018. He describedhow it was in Oslo that time, the capital of Norway, where he grew up in the 1950s and 60s. Of his primary school class there was only one other classmate who went on to university. The rest took some vocational and technical training, trade schools, and other one-two year certificate or diploma courses, sometimes with apprenticeship or other learning on the job; some simply went on to work after the compulsory eight years education, which was expanded to nine years about that time. Girls took less education than boys as it was still not uncommon that women stayed at home after marriage with young families, although it began to change and more women joined the workforce. Women often took shorter higher education courses than men; they became nurses rather than doctors, primary school teachers rather than secondary school teachers, and so on; few women took engineering and other ‘male subjects’.
Professor Sjøberg, who is a capacity on science teaching, and he was a sportsman in his youth, recalled in the newspaper article I mentioned above, that in the group of a dozen or so of his close friends who were top speed skaters (he being one of them), they were all just ordinary middle-class people, from friendly and stable neighbourhoods, all living in apartment houses, not in villas. There was optimism and things were getting better for everyone, but university education was still rare for most.
Sjøberg recalls that there was competition on the ice on the sports pitches, but there was also deep friendship and concern about the others, and the equipment and training opportunities were not extravagant at all. In a few photos he presented, the sportsmen had jerseys without advertisements and sponsorship was generally an unknown word. Sjøberg was nostalgic about many things, but he painted a picture that I basically agree with. True, there were probably some talents who were never discovered and given opportunity, neither at school nor in sports. Major social mobility through education was just about start.
Now, fifty years hence, much has changed; anybody who wants secondary education has the right to receive schooling or apprenticeship of three years following the compulsory ten years of schooling. Much of what Sjøberg recalled about education and life in Oslo that time may still be true in Pakistan today. Besides, secondary and higher education opportunities in Pakistan are few, and formal apprenticeship places and vocational training opportunities often very rare or non-existent. On top of that, many don’t attend primary school at all or drop out early. Figuresin a recent study suggest that over 22 million school-age children are not attending school. Again, comparing with Norway, that picture would be one or two hundred years old. The Norwegian primary school was indeed quite basic, but it was compulsory and for all, well, with some differences in laws for education in rural and urban municipalities until 1959. In rural communities, children went to schools 3 days per week, every other day, while they in the cities went every day, although not always full days. The thinking behind this was a form of segregation, of course, but it was also meant to be a way of allowing children to learn their parents’ trade or vocation, learn to help on the farm, in fishing, with household chores, and so on. In towns and cities, it was common that children helped in shops and other workplaces after school. It was not seen as child labour; and most of the time it wasn’t either. It was considered part of child rearing and allowing children to learn and master other things than just the bookish knowledge. Importantly, children gained respect for their local communities in a different way than the way schools and upbringing function today when there is far too little contact between school and society, the parents’ work and children’s life.
In Pakistan, I believe we must immediately move to universal primary education (UPE) for all children; it should be eight years rather than just five – in accordance with the thinking of the founders of Pakistan more than 70 years. They said such education should be implemented at the earliest possible time! But before we do it, let us make some changes in content and curriculum. I want it to be reduced, and I even believe that children sometimes can go to school on alternate weekdays, the way the Norwegians did. The school day doesn’t need to be full day either as there should be ample time to help at home and in the local community after school. Considering the extended family structure in Pakistan, there is great potential to develop excellent ways of doing this; furthermore, there could also be important roles for local NGOs, civil society organizations, sports clubs and so on.
Let me underline that in ‘Naya Pakistan’, the government must do what they promised during the election campaign, notably implement UPE and make it compulsory, too. There will not be any ‘new Pakistan’ unless government education is given much more attention and support. To spend only some 2.2 percent of GDP on education, which Pakistan does, is a shame. UNESCO and other expert organizations recommend at least 4 percent, and the successful countries spend 7 percent or more. When I worked in Kenya in the 1980s, I remember they spent some thirty percent of the government budgets on education.
Pakistan can certainly succeed in education. It puzzles me that education is still lagging so far behind. Besides, to provide education for all is not rocket science; it is rather simple. Yes, it costs money; the main option is to cut the defence budget. I would also advice my home government to reduce their NATO and military spending and increase invest in the youth and in better pensions for old people like me. In Pakistan, better tax collection can generate funds for education, health, job-creation and other basic fields for development.
The proverbs I drew attention to at the beginning of today’s article give some guidance and inspiration. They make us think about spending money in a sober way; we don’t need to drive new and expensive cars; we don’t need to overspend and show off. The proverbs say that it is unhealthy do so. We must always remember to share and care for others. If we think like that, then I am sure we can find enough resources to provide education for all – in all societies and communities, for all boys and all girls, even adult education and skills training throughout life. Foreign donors must initially do more. And again, UPE in Pakistan doesn’t have to be extravagant; it should be practical and concrete; it should create self-esteem and values in pupils; it should make children continue being creative and dream about an all inclusive and prosperous future. It can be done; it must be done during this parliamentary term, without which there will be no ‘new Pakistan”.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist
with experience in research, diplomacy and