New Education for All

The time is over when we in schools can force our children and youth to memorize things they in future can look up on the Internet, and soon even with AI help, and more.

There is an ‘Education Emergency’ in Pakistan, according to top leaders, including the PM, chief ministers, and others. When they use such strong words, it creates attention, indeed worries about the situation, but also hopes for corrective measures to be taken by the provinces, the central government, the private sector, and foreign donors. I shall in a few articles discuss some key education issues related to Pakistan and the world at large, also basing much on my own education research and experience on three continents, especially in poor countries. The problems vary, but many are also similar, even in rich countries – from too much education to too little education, depending on economic, social, geographic, gender, and other factors. Thus, there is an education emergency worldwide.

Pakistan is amongst a handful of populous countries with very high numbers of out-of-school children. The figure is said to be about 26 million in the country, and worldwide over 60 million. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it probably also include pupils who drop out before completing the short five or six-year primary school cycle. In any case, in our day and time, it is a disgrace to any country and community if not all their children get a basic education that can keep them active as children and prepare them for a better future life in a world that has become quite modern everywhere.

Maybe schooling was less important earlier, but today homes and communities are not organized to spend time teaching children values, traditions, local history, work skills, and more. Those who are deprived of the opportunity are bound to fall behind and remain at the bottom of the ladder. It is an unfair system as we know that talent is equally distributed among all, but, alas, opportunity is not. And, it is also a problem for the country; we know that the most developed countries have had basic education, often compulsory, for two or three hundred years.

To some extent, Pakistan, being a Muslim country, is not as bad off as it would otherwise have been; the religious institutions help with some teaching, especially about faith and moral issues, mainly for boys. In addition, in rural areas and in many urban areas, too, children are brought up learning the trade and work from their parents. If done well, it has aspects similar to apprenticeship and vocational training. Everywhere, girls more than boys, are required to take part in household chores. Child labour, which is common in many poor countries, has no or very limited learning aspects to it; it is always repetitive and routine. There is a big difference between helping parents or other family members, as children want to do, and working for strangers for some small money or just accommodation. On the other extreme, schools have become too focused on bookish learning, and many children are not necessarily academically gifted and interested. To them, the ‘hidden curriculum’ that the school teaches them is that they are not as good as they should be, even losers.

I believe in basic education for all children and youth, but I also think that we have gone far too far in forcing all children to spend almost all their time, year in and year out, at school, with a too broad curriculum. Whereas many younger children should be allowed to combine play and learning, older children and youth should be allowed to combine learning and work, and they should be given more freedom to select and choose what to do themselves. In many ways, the standard school everywhere is made for the convenience of teachers and adults, not for the students and their learning needs. It also seems that has become more suited for girls than boys.

I believe that when Pakistan now looks more seriously into the education sector, for the first time, it is mainly because of the embarrassingly high number of out-of-school children, and an emerging realization of the damages of a segregated system of private and government schools. Also, we must admit that much of the curriculum is irrelevant, or not as relevant as it should be. Even in Pakistan, which spends a smaller percentage of BNP on education than most countries, still the cost of education is high with less social and individual returns than it should have. More of the same will thus be wasteful. We stand at a crossroads and must consider what kind of education we really want. Education is the most important thing in any country, for peace and development. Yet, not any type of education, and today much of the content and organization is wrong. The current ‘Education Emergency’ situation gives us an opportunity to review and reconsider the whole education system – in Pakistan and the whole world for that matter.

The time is over when we in schools can force our children and youth to memorize things they in future can look up on the Internet, and soon even with AI help, and more. The workers in the public and private sectors, and in self or group employment, need to find answers and solutions to questions themselves, even such that we don’t know how to formulate. The innovativeness and creativeness needed in future, seems to be far away from what schools do today; on top of it is too costly and take away time from more sensible activities. Today and in the future, it is the working life rather than the school that can teach most of these issues, or they do it in collaboration in arenas where all the teachers and learners work together. We should be able to say that young people become successful and innovative workers because of their schooling, not in spite of it.

Still, today’s school does have some important functions, certainly as for the basic skills learning in literacy, the three Rs, and to some extent, how to think about and analyze issues. That will be the main task of tomorrow’s education, which should also focus on life skills and the ability to live happy lives and look after own physical, mental and social health and well-being. The school must be a place where all children and youth like to be and feel successful and happy. If a school cannot cater for every different and unique child, with its aspirations and curiosities, it is not worth the name of school. In the West, in Sweden, I think it is, as many as a fifth or a quarter leave primary school with a certificate that say they have passed; they have failed, being ineligible for further education and most jobs, too. It is the education system that has failed, not the child or youth.

It is important that Pakistan considers what kind of education it really wants in the future, how much, and in what forms. In my next articles, I shall present some suggestions, which will also include a massive literacy and general knowledge campaign for the country, using distance education, NGOs, CBOs, companies, and more – for the 26 million out-of-school children and for the many young and older adults who have been deprived of basic education – and let us always remember, they are as talented as you and I, even more.

Atle Hetland
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. He can be reached at

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid

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