The crisis of our school education system is much deeper than is appreciated by state authorities in Islamabad. The good news is that there is realization of the extent of the crisis in concerned quarters, i.e. education bureaucracies in the Centre and provinces. Towards the end of 2018, a very well drafted policy framework was presented to the nation by the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government. It detailed the urgent task of enrolling 22.84 million out of school children across the country, the bulk of whom should attend middle and secondary schools but cannot because there aren’t enough such schools in the country to begin with. The framework also recognised the need to bring up the net-enrolment rates which are among the lowest in the South Asian region.
Another aspect, not stressed enough in the framework, is the gradual withdrawal of the state from provision of this key public good. A report compiled by Alif Ailaan has documented that almost 40 percent of the school-going children are enrolled in private schools. Only a fraction of this percentage attends schools that cater to the elites and the upwardly mobile middle classes, whose tuition fees have been a subject of concern for the executive and judicial authorities of the state for quite some time. After having ordered a flat 20 percent reduction in tuition fees of such schools in December last year, the apex court has now sought a report on the implementation status of its ruling.
While judicial activism of this sort can provide a temporary relief to the vocal elites and upper-middle classes, the underlying problem that has caused the mushrooming of private schools remains unaddressed. That has to do with the state’s complete abdication of its responsibility to provide a good quality education to Pakistan’s children. The role of the state in provision of education cannot be stressed enough given the public nature of the good. By surrendering this responsibility to the market, the state has become complicit in an apartheid of sorts where those with means can afford quality education for their children who get an advantage over children from poor and lower-middle class households for no achievements of their own. This means that there are next to no chances opportunities for upward social mobility available to children born into poor households or those born away from cities, and that our society has become deeply fragmented along the lines of economic class.
Therefore, the authorities in Islamabad will be best advised to be sincere to the Pakistani children and initiate a dialogue for ending this education apartheid. Temporary and ad hoc measures to cut down on tuition fees charged by private education institutes will address only the symptoms of the deeper crisis of school education. To address the crisis itself, the authorities will have to do some introspection, meaning they will need redo the public education system. Educating our children is too serious a task to be handed over to the whims of the market. *
Published in Daily Times, January 11th 2019.
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