Just over six decades from Independence, Pakistan must reconcile itself to the fact that it has not yet made good on the intention of its founders to guarantee basic education to each of this country’s citizens – a guarantee now enshrined in Article 25A of the Constitution, and presumed a universal right by the Millennium Development Goals. Given that less than half of Pakistanis are retained in schools up till the age of 16, with literacy levels still hovering around 50%, it is clear that extraordinary efforts must be made to bridge a divide that our population growth rate continues to expand.
Clearly, the bulk of these efforts must be sustained by Pakistan’s Federal and Provincial Governments. To its credit, the Punjab Government has embarked on a number of excellent initiatives that have laid the groundwork for positive reform – although in some cases this Government has yet to capitalize on its achievements. The Daanish Schools have provided underprivileged children with their first real avenue to an elite education and socio-economic mobility; this is something the average public school could never have provided. Now these schools must be made self-sufficient through a combination of endowment funding and (crucially) cross-subsidization by offering these quality facilities to a small number of high-fee paying students. Primary and Secondary School Reform is well underway, with student and teacher attendance each having risen by an average of 7% over the last four months alone. Aspects of these reforms now need to be mandated by legislation (such as reducing the role of teachers in census and disaster management issues). Over 4,000 schools have been upgraded with the addition of computer labs, while over 100,000 laptops have been distributed to high achieving students. But there are yet further opportunities of leasing and student loan financing that could potentially allow every student to benefit from computers in the classroom (Mooresville, a district in North Carolina, USA, has introduced MacBook Airs in schools at a leasing cost of just $215/year each).
It is all to the credit of the Punjab Chief Minister and his School Department that these schemes exist, and can be built upon. Certainly, this is not true of Pakistan’s other governments. That said, there has never been a more interesting time for education in this country than the present – this was the message of the ‘Synergies in Education 2012′ conference, held in Lahore last week. While The Citizens Foundation expands education outreach to complement the discharge of state responsibility, Mobilink experiments with SMS based learning. The Punjab Vocational Training Council makes successful use of Zakat funds to train impoverished young people in technical and vocational skills, while some of Pakistan’s largest corporations, such as Atlas Honda and Descon, divert increasing amounts of time and capital to the development of their basic human resource. The Educators leverages one of the world’s largest school chains to provide a mid-cost model to the for-profit sector, while the Ali Institute focuses on teacher training, and Teach for Pakistan motivates talented young graduates to devote their energies to teaching in public schools.
With some of Pakistan’s leading private educationists present, such as Syed Babar Ali, alongside the highest level of government from multiple provinces, this forum provided an unrivalled arena to debate the substantive issues of Pakistan’s education dilemma. Sir Michael Barber and George Turkington of DfID used this opportunity to speak candidly about the major advances made in what is the British Government’s largest education based collaboration with a foreign government, let alone one operating at the sub-national level (of the Punjab province).
The conference benefited from the financial and intellectual contributions of its sponsors, DfID, the British Council, GiZ and the Punjab Government. However, what sets the Synergies conferences apart (they are now in their second year) is their inclusion of a broad cross-section of interests, including those of industry and the media. This year was no exception, with Sulaiman Lalani’s presentation on the ‘Zara Sochiye’ campaign run by Geo – now in full force – attracting the attention of most of the conference delegates.
At the closing ceremony, presided over by the Punjab Chief Minister, the conference’s policy highlights were underpinned by an acknowledgment that ongoing education reform would require the contributions of both conventional and unconventional stakeholders. To make resources match their requirements, innovation will be vital. However, even more important than this will be ongoing political resolve to make the hard decisions. With an election in sight, it is now the public’s responsibility to make education the decisive issue at the polls.