Education is considered to have a strong correlation with social and economic development. In contemporary times when the focus is on the ‘knowledge economy’ the role of education becomes all the more important in the development of human capital.
After all, a society of literate and skilled citizens has more chances of development at the economic and social levels.
Education can reduce poverty and social injustice by providing the underprivileged resources and opportunities for upward social mobility and social inclusion. Yet, until the National Education Policy (NEP) 2009 was unveiled, the budgetary allocation for education in Pakistan was on the decline.
The lack of political commitment of the state has resulted in multiple educational systems which are inherently discriminatory and biased in nature. A large number of students are unable to attend schools. According to the Education For All Global Monitoring Report (2007), almost 6.5 million children in Pakistan do not go to school. Countries like India, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Ghana, Niger, Kenya and Mali are placed in relatively better positions. The only country that has a worse situation than Pakistan’s is Nigeria, with more than eight million children out of school.
A large number of students who make it to schools, however, drop out by class five. According to NEP, about 72 per cent make it to grade five which means a dropout rate of 28 per cent. This significant figure further brings down the chunk of the population that makes it to school.
Such a large number of students outside school means that they are deprived of the opportunity to learn and acquire skills for playing a meaningful role in society. Social exclusion is a great loss at the individual and societal levels. Most of these out-of-school children experience poverty and unemployment and some get involved in criminal activities as well. Constitutionally, the provision of basic education to citizens is the state’s responsibility. Is the state carrying out its responsibility? The state needs to analyse the reasons be
hind the number of out-of-school children. They come from poor families and cannot afford the luxury of education despite their desire for it.
The real issue of educational apartheid comes to the surface only after joining a school. Enrolling in a school does not ensure the provision of quality education. There is one question which is central to quality: what kind of school is it? The answer to this question may include the state of the building, faculty, management, curriculum, textbooks, examination system and medium of instruction as well as the socio-economic background of the children.
The reference to socio-economic background is crucial as schools — like social classes — are stratified in terms of social status. So social exclusion is not only at the access level but also at the quality level. The widening difference between private and public schools is responsible for the gaping chasm between resources and opportunities given to the poor and the rich. Children from elite schools have enhanced chances of employment and social integration whereas children from public schools, no matter how bright they are, are disadvantaged in terms of getting exposure to quality education.
The famous slogan ‘education for all’ needs to be revisited. Is it sufficient to enrol every child in school? The continuance of disparity and exclusion goes on depending on the quality of the school. Thus the slogan needs to focus on ‘quality education for all’. It is the quality aspect which is missing in disadvantaged schools. Instead of taking some constructive measures to improve the conditions the state is taking the easy route of offering private schools as an alternative.
Government officials publicly give statements that public schools have failed and the only alternative left is private schools. I do not intend to underplay the significant role private schools can play in the uplift of the educational system in Pakistan. My only contention is that they are there to complement the system and should not be presented as an alternative to public education.
Education has failed miserably to reduce poverty gaps, social injustice and oppression. The education policy suggests that ‘the educational system of Pakistan is accused of strengthening the existing inequitable social structure as very few people from public-sector educational institutions could move up the ladder of social mobility’.
What action plan has been given in the new education policy to ensure that this won’t happen in the future? Simply referring to a problem does not mean that it has been taken care of. The education policy should have given a clear and concrete blueprint to combat social exclusion, inequality and social injustice. The existing discriminatory educational systems are not only perpetuating the socio-economic gaps between the haves and have-nots, they are also responsible for further widening these gaps.
The writer is director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.