Learning at school is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. A teacher’s job seems plain and simple: help students understand and apply a given linguistic, motor, or numeric concept. It is, however, in the details that the devil resides. Here are some: A typical government school teacher who enters a classroom for a session has about 25 minutes to get their 30-50 students seated, review their concepts, introduce the day’s lesson, explain the concept, ask questions and answer questions, give relevant examples, give students the time to take notes, give them some classwork and check the progress, go around and see everyone is on track, figure out which students are struggling and attend to their individual questions, get students to do some peer or group activity, revise the lesson, check their homework from previous day and give them new homework for the next.

The typical teacher often has an overcrowded and under-resourced classroom, usually must teach students with diverse learning abilities, always faces pressure to finish the syllabus on time, and never has enough time to make sure all or most students understand the lesson. Most teachers are also responsible for maintaining attendance records, conducting assemblies, supervising children during breaks, and doing administrative work on a daily basis. If you picture the ordeal of teaching at a government school, it is nerve-wrecking even for the smartest and most resilient of the bunch. If you add to the picture the duties and engagement of teachers beyond the classrooms and the policy and cultural ecosystem in which they are expected to teach children, it is crystal clear that the learning crisis at our schools cannot be attributed to teachers alone. The eco-system in which teachers operate is broken due to decades of neglect and decay, making tougher the already tough job of teachers.

The median child at a public school is not learning enough to be able to develop literacy, numeracy, and the soft skillset that enables a person to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from the society that they are part of. For a nation that is already tangled up in socioeconomic woes, political despair, and scientific stagnation, the current state of low learning at schools portends only further decay. Effective teachers, no doubt, are indispensable to improving learning outcomes for children. Poor teaching and incompetent teachers negatively affect learning, but a broken, unsupportive eco-system characterised by poor policies, indifferent parents, inadequate resources, and the absence of political support impedes even the best of teachers. The answer to our struggling schools therefore lies in taking collective responsibility to do our part to weave an ecosystem that promotes and supports learning among students.

The ‘incompetent teachers’ argument doesn’t hold up if you look at the ground realities. Most teachers who are now part of the public sector schools are well qualified. Public records show that a vast majority of teachers in public schools have sixteen years of education and some form (generally B. Ed. or M. Ed.) of professional certification. They also go through induction and in-service trainings that are aimed at fine-tuning their skills further. These ground realities reflect that content knowledge of the teachers is not the biggest constraint. It may be the case that they do not put in adequate efforts due to the absence of robust monitoring and reward mechanisms. If such mechanisms are in place and effective teachers are rewarded through a mix of monetary and non-monetary rewards, interests and the effort teachers put in can be rejuvenated.

Indifference among parents and the absence of political will generally go in tandem and they generally accentuate the inadequacy of resources, both human and material, at schools. Anyone who has worked with the public sector education system knows that the further away a school is from a city or town, the more under-resourced it is likely to be. The state of neglect and impoverishment of public schools generally increases if one moves from an upscale neighbourhood to a poorer one, or from an urban setting to a rural one. This trend is mainly driven by the consciousness and negotiating power that the communities around the schools hold. Communities that are more conscious of their children’s education and have some form of hold on the levers of power (through media, social network, or presence of powerful residents) are better able to influence the education quality through bureaucracies and politicians.

In contrast, communities that are generally rural and disproportionately poorer are also less likely to be highly conscious of their children’s education—not because they do not value education, but because most of their time and energy is eaten up by other primal struggles. To make matters worse, they lack the awareness and means to influence politicians and bureaucrats. The few in the community who have resources send their children elsewhere for education. Public schools in such contexts are a picture of utmost neglect, characterised by fewer teachers, dilapidated infrastructure, and abysmally low learning levels. Ironically, the most vulnerable segment of society faces an appalling level of neglect from bureaucrats and politicians alike when it comes to public sector education. Development of children in affective and cognitive domains in such schools remains a distant dream.

Learning at schools is also a function of the policy environment in which the schools operate. Top-down policies that are not rooted in realities of the schools do more harm than good. The ‘higher ups’ (as they call them) doll out one pager orders to be obliged by schools in ‘letter and spirit’. These include policies around, among other things, the promotion of students, completion of syllabus, ensuring availability of new textbooks. During Covid, the higher-ups decided that everyone should be promoted. Similarly, teachers were (and still are) repeatedly reminded to complete the syllabus. This results in rushing children through the symbolic grades without understanding or mastery. To ensure policies support learning rather than hampering it, they must be brought closer to the school and the community around it. We know one-size-fit-all policies all too well to expect anything good from them.

Learning poverty among students is a ubiquitous phenomenon in all provinces of Pakistan, albeit more severe in some than others. Too often, people tend to put the blame squarely on teachers who are accused of inefficiency left, right and centre. We know all too well that teachers are but only one piece of the puzzle. The learning outcomes at school are a function of the broader ecosystem where the school operates. Resource constraints, indifference among communities around schools, absence of political will, impetuous policy directives, and inability to align incentives and values of teachers are the major impediments to improvement of learning at our schools. A tectonic change in the collective consciousness and behaviour is needed to resuscitate learning at schools. This will require politicians to look beyond their parochial interests, public servants to drastically improve their efficiency, and parents to come together to advocate as one group and press for better service provision. This may be politically inexpedient and require change of values and ways of doing business among public servants but in the long run it will benefit all. A rising tide lifts all boats.