Holidays vs school days in Karachi

Unannounced holidays have become an everyday norm
Karachi, Jan 19: The one thing that school-going children love most about schools are holidays and for the children of Karachi, school, in that context, has become an absolute treat.

Unannounced holidays have become an everyday norm for the people of Karachi. Strikes, protest marches, sudden violence breakouts, or simply Pakistan winning the last cricket match against India, can prompt holidays for the city.

Where most of these holidays are concerned with the law and order situation of Karachi, and are thus deemed unavoidable, there are still some that are either completely unnecessary, or could have been announced earlier in the notices provided to schools by the Directorate of Private Institutions. Such steps, if taken, would help school administrations minimize the chaos and confusion that generally takes place when a holiday is announced the night before.

Nargis Alavi, the principal of Habib Girls School comments: "When an unscheduled holiday is declared late in the evening, it causes a lot of confusion. Many children, who may not have seen the news, or are unsure about it, turn up at school the next day. It causes problems for teachers as well as parents. And the students are prone to call up the teachers at inconvenient hours given the utter uncertainty of the whole situation. Also the school may have scheduled an event on that particular day and rescheduling it becomes a nightmare. Recently, I had to send a written apology to the director for keeping the school open when an unscheduled holiday was declared."

Such are the complications that arise for every school when an unscheduled holiday is announced. School children may find these holidays an unexpected pleasure, but students studying on a professional basis find such holidays extremely exasperating. Asra Majeed, an ACCA student, agrees.

"We have only a limited number of days to complete our syllabus, and holidays of this kind become a burden on us. There have been many a time when, even after an unscheduled holiday has been announced, our institute remained open, the teachers arrived, and some students came as well the rest of the class suffers as a result. On the other hand, even if all the students are informed about the holiday, rescheduling another class becomes a problem, as the teachers may not find the time for it, or the students may have clashes with other classes."

Researching this article brought me to an entirely surprising piece of evidence. Apparently, unannounced holidays are only a negligible part of the situation as a whole. Tahir Javed, director of the Al-Murtaza Professional Development Centre, has researched diligently on this topic.

Mr Javed and the heads of 17 other trust schools including Habib Girls School, Happy Home School, St Michael's Convent, Gulistan Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai School for Boys and Mama Parsi School for Girls met with the Minister of Education of the Interim Government, and presented their problem. Mr Javed had some very interesting facts to share concerning his research.

"One of the greatest problems of our education system is that we [the education providers] are not given enough days to even go halfway through the allotted syllabus. The Ministry of Education provides us with a list of holidays that will occur during the school year. As an example, for the year 2007, we were informed of 23 days that would be observed as holidays throughout the country including Eid days, religious and national holidays and bank holidays.

"Apart from these, we were informed of the days that would be observed as winter and summer vacations. The rest, termed as school days, are the days that the Ministry of Education has allotted for the completion of the syllabus, which incidentally should take 210 days to complete after the most recent curriculum update," he points out.

"According to the Ministry of Education, all the days on which the school remains open are deemed as school days. However, only those days in which the students are actually in school should be accounted for as school days, as these are the days in which the children are actually being taught, and the syllabus is being completed.

"The Ministry has counted weekends and examination periods, including the period in which a school serves as an examination centre, and the period when teachers evaluate exam papers for the students' results in these allotted days. All of these days are counted as part of the teaching days, which is completely irrelevant. How is the school expected to carry on with its routine work when it is serving as an examination centre?" he asks.

"Also, the ministry has not kept any provision for unannounced holidays which is quite unwise keeping the law and order situation of the country in mind. Moreover, the highest authority figures are given a quota of holidays that they may announce for the city on ad hoc basis, and these are not accounted for either. Therefore, after keeping all these days in mind, we are left with about 100-150 teaching days, as compared to the 210 day schedule provided by the Ministry of Education," explains the educationist.

"Where we are not given sufficient time to complete even half of the allotted syllabus, it is a wonder how matriculation and intermediate students can cope with their examinations. When we look at the education authorities of other places, like Ontario, Canada, which annually publishes a five-year school calendar and sticks to it come rain or shine, we can see why our education system is deteriorating day by day," he adds.

Saad Shakeel, a second year intermediate student, concurs completely with Mr Javed's statements.

"When our first-year intermediate examinations came up, more than half of our syllabus was left incomplete. This was in no way the fault of our teachers, who conducted classes regularly, and tried to cover as much work as was possible, in each class. We simply did not have enough days to complete the approved syllabus. Many students took extra tuitions to complete the unfinished course, while others, including myself, had to do so, on our own."

The situation seems quite unfair for the students and costly for the parents. When parents pay abominably high prices for their children's education, they expect that their children will at least learn as much as is required by regular standards in a given year. With such a vast syllabus, and not enough days available in which to complete it, children are bound to look for extra tuitions, thus taking another toll on their parents' pockets.

It is a norm for many schools to compensate unannounced holidays (given due to the law and order situation of the city) by calling students on weekends, extending the hours of a normal school day, or cutting short a part of the vacations. However, this presents another problem.

"We remained open most of the winter vacation this year in order to compensate for the days lost due to the unusually high number of unannounced holidays since the term started," says Mr Javed.

"It is important that our students complete their allotted syllabus. However, we have received at least a couple of calls from the Directorate of Education asking why we have kept the school open when they scheduled holidays for this period. It is a sad fact, that in this country, we are asked to apologise for imparting education to students, and any school may announce day/s off for any number of reasons ranging from good performance of the school in an inter-school sports event to the school getting flooded in the rain, and not be asked to give explanations."

It is true that schools that call students on scheduled holidays are given warnings and may have to give fines for further breaches. It comes as a surprise that our Ministry of Education is more concerned about the holidays as compared to the teaching days. A serious reality check is in order here -- the ministry needs to make up a school year calendar for the schools to follow, and that facilitates the completion of the allotted curriculum.

It is evident that our schedule is based more on ad-hoc notions than hard facts and relevant research. The ministry either has to cut down the syllabus to fit in the teaching days provided, or cut down the holidays to accommodate the vast syllabus. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which measure will be popular with school-going children. By Tahreem Wasti (Dawn)

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