Article 25-A of the Constitution, that guarantees the right to free and compulsory education to children between the ages of five to sixteen years old, was inserted in the Constitution by the 18th Amendment. At the time of its passage in 2010, the move was lauded as a step in the right direction. Eight years on, however, doubts are beginning to creep in because it has had a very limited effect in improving the quality of education in the public sector schools across the country.
The 2016 report issued by UNESCO reveals that public sector schools in Pakistan comprise 75% of the primary education system in Pakistan. The private sector schools consist of 10% while the remaining 15% are the deeni madrassas. These figures seem to be heartening but if we take stock of the nature – let alone the quality of education being imparted in these schools - the numbers become unsettling. Part of the problem flows from the fact that the people who are responsible for enforcing Article 25-A belong to the upper strata of society and their own children study in private schools that only the rich can afford. Consequently, they do not have any sufficient incentive to improve the quality of education in public sector schools, which explains why there is bureaucratic inertia in improving the condition of our public sector schools.
The majority of our public schools remain in a poor state and the government’s persistent failure to improve our educational sector is alarming. For instance, it was recently reported that about 1000 schools were shutdown in KPK due to poor enrolment because they had been constructed in the wrong places. It turns out; the schools had been constructed on the directives of its Chief Minister without undertaking a proper study of the demographic outlook.
Even where schools have been constructed in the right places, the workforce employed in public sector educational system is bloated. The salary of teachers accounts for at least 87% of the education budget in Pakistan’s provinces. A lot of that money is completely wasted because many of our major political parties, calculatedly, dole out teaching jobs as a way of hiring election workers and rewarding their voters to boost chances of re-election. Such populist measures that are driven more by expediency and concerns for political gain has led to a situation where many teachers in public schools are not turning up despite pocketing salaries.
Similarly, a survey led by World Bank suggests that most Pakistani children who start school drop out by the age of nine with just 3% of those starting public school graduating from the final year. This retention rate is abysmal. If only two-fifths of third-grade students have the ability to subtract 25 from 54 then unsurprisingly, many parents will turn away from this system. Resultantly, the difference in enrolment between children of the richest and poorest households is greater in Pakistan than in all of the 96 developing countries. Many students from low-income backgrounds drop out because of financial constraints. Others who can afford it are reluctant to do so because the poor quality of education offered in public schools is not worth expending your savings on, as it does not open up many job opportunities. As these damning statistics show, even if these households do spend money on educating their children it does not guarantee any upward social mobility.
By way of contrast, universalisation of primary education has been one of the most important goals of educational development in India. In January 2016, Kerala became the 1st Indian state to achieve 100% primary education through its literacy programme “Athulyam”. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE Act) was enacted in India in 2009 making it a fundamental right of every child between the ages of 6 and 14. It required all private schools to reserve 25% of seats for children from disadvantaged groups, which are to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan. The act also specified that a child should not be held back, expelled or required to pass a board examination until the completion of elementary education. It requires the government to take some advancing measures such as surveys that will monitor all neighborhoods, identify children requiring education, and set up facilities for providing it. As observed, the RTE Act is the first legislation of its kind in the world that puts the responsibility of ensuring enrolment, attendance and completion of school by children on the Government rather than the parents.
In 2014, the Punjab Free and Compulsory Act was enacted to implement Article 25-A. However it has proved to be ineffective thus far in terms of the objectives it was intended to accomplish. A comparison of our law with the Indian experience shows that the Act itself does not cater to any of the underlying issues including the much desired quota system for minorities or under privileged groups of Pakistan.
It is about time that our government starts considering education as an investment rather than an expense. The government should divert more attention towards improving the public sector educational system. A practical approach would be to work on developing better administrative facilities including training teachers, opting for a good curricular system and extracurricular activities that benefits and grooms our children.
The writer is a lawyer.