Pakistan’s education system needs to stop treating our children as proxies designed to achieve a higher purpose

Pakistan was among 191 nations that committed to eradicate and improve certain Millennium Development Goals. One of the indicators, focusing on education, was to achieve Universal Primary Education by the end of 2015. We have adopted 16 targets and 41 indicators against which progress towards achieving the Eight Goals of the MDGs is measured. (Source: UNDP)

By the end of the year 2015, Pakistan failed to fulfill this indicator – and by a huge margin.

“Pakistan’s progress has also been severely lagging in Goal 2, achieving universal primary education as it is off track in achieving the targets set for 2015 in all three indicators. In particular, the completion/survival rate seems to have declined rapidly in recent years implying that more than a quarter of the students enrolled in primary schools do not complete their education. Pakistan’s literacy rate, though having improved marginally over the years, remains considerably short of the MDG target of 88% by 2015 at 58%, and closer inspection reveals large gender and rural/urban disparities.” (UNDP-Pakistan)

Before we look into the failures of our educational system, we need to look a little into the historical perspective of this basic human right.

Bertrand Russel, one of the highly respectable philosophers of modern time, spoke extensively on the importance of early childhood education. He emphasised on how education in certain parts of the world was used for imposing specific beliefs in children. The most prominent ideologies that were seen being taught to children during the WW2, in Nazi Germany and Japan, was lopsided knowledge along with different aspects of philosophy, for the purpose of aggrandising the nation. What was harmful in these situations was that the children were not the purpose of education but they became the means to achieve a specific purpose.

The same can be seen in our country. Pakistan’s educational system has always been influenced by the political climate; whether it was the three decades of dictatorship or the democratic rule, educational policies were always on the table of discussion.

The biggest turn of discourse on education was when General Zia-ul-Haq came into power. During his dictatorship, Zia-ul-Haq introduced madrassas where teaching Arabic became compulsory, and government funded schools focused on teaching all subjects in Urdu language. This also led to disseminating gender influenced messages, favouring men more at the expense of women. In a bid to eliminate previous influences of colonised English language, and instil strong patriotic connotations, a radicalised version of Islamisation was facilitated.

After decades of failed projects, sectarian violence and still no lead towards the progress of universal education, the incident of Malala Yousafzai emerged on the news. This was a landmark of Pakistan’s mismanagement, which was questioned by the international donor committees.

In 2012, Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously passed a bill, Right to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, guaranteeing free education to children from the ages of 5-16. The motive was to officially commit to the universal literacy, and to meet the 2015 targets of MDG. According to this education bill, parents who refuse to send their children to school can be fined and imprisoned for three months, and employers who hire school age children face up to six months in jail.

Needless to point out here, according to the statistics report, ‘The State of Pakistan’s Children,2011’, written by SPARC (society for the protection of the rights of the child): “Almost 25 million children are currently out of school in Pakistan, while seven million of them have yet to receive some form of primary schooling.”

A question arises: if there are few children enrolled in government funded schools, where do they receive formal or informal education?

The number of madrassas has crossed from 300 to 35,000, since the inception of Pakistan, according to one of the study reports issued prior to post 9/11. Many radicalised ideologies are taught in such institutions with no formal education in science, mathematics and English language.

A report titled ‘The madrasa conundrum – the state of religious education in Pakistan’ was authored by Umair Khalil, who led a research for an NGO, HIVE. According to the study, there are countless loopholes in the systematic manner of documenting the current state of madrassa enrolment in Pakistan. There are 3.5 million students enrolled in more than 35 thousand madrasas affiliated with the ITMD (Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris-e-Deniya,Pakistan), an Express Tribune report claims.

There is an important aspect that needs to be addressed here: children enrolled in madrassas are mostly from a poor socio-economic background. It’s inevitable to understand the correlation between madrassa enrolment and income status of the families of the students. Social Policy Development Center (SPDC) reports on the state of education in Pakistan claim that, “income is the primary determinant of whether a child goes to a madrasa” (SPDC, 2003). Hence, these institutions are performing the role of welfare state in the country by providing sustenance for the poor. There are countless archived documents and reports on the subjects taught to these children; syllabus structure comprises of countless war related topics, refuting other religions and sects, history and social sciences are taught according to the motive of spreading the ideology of jihad. Children receive religious education, but there are no basic skills to find feasible jobs in their future. Subjects like Evolution are completely eliminated from the textbooks.

Pakistan’s acting government has failed to address the countless problems associated with the current state of education at primary and secondary level. It’s a herculean task but not impossible; sustenance requires professional social policymakers to plan unbiased strategic projects that can fulfil the desired results.

We cannot eliminate the madrassas but we can emphasize on changing the decorum of what is taught to these children. One key problem that we all forget to address here is: every province in Pakistan has a different level of problems and needs different policies to integrate the coming generations into the modern society.

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