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Quality education for all

Quality Education It is time for political parties to dust off their manifestos, redo them in the light of the developments over the last five years and the new imperatives we face, and then put them in front of the people again. This article is an appeal to all parties. We urge you to a) understand the imperative and the urgency for educating the youth of our society, and b) include, in your manifestos, a promise to ensure the provision of quality education to all children in our society.
The enactment of the promise can be done over a period of five years or so, and the manifestos can include the phasing plan as well, but we urge you to make the promise to the people of Pakistan, and we urge you to make the promise with the intention of making good on it if/when you form government after the election.

Educating the youth of Pakistan makes sense. It is clear that education, at least at the primary and even secondary level, is seen as a right of children. Even our Constitution recognises that right, although in an indirect way. But it is not just a right. It makes functional sense to educate the youth too. The society cannot develop, sustain a high pace for development or maintain a high growth rate if it does not have an educated population and an educated & trained work force.

Current educational levels in Pakistan are quite poor. A majority of our children do not finish primary and secondary levels, drop out rates remain high and a very small percentage go on to college, university or technical education. This clearly does not bode well for us. But sadly, the bad news does not end here. The quality of education that most of the students who are enrolled in institutions and who do complete the primary or secondary level, and even university, are getting is quite poor.

University graduates cannot read and write properly, they cannot follow the advanced literature in their fields of specialisation, they cannot innovate and play with ideas and they cannot even internalise most of the knowledge that they see for years on end. Rote learning, poor methods for teaching, poor methods of examining, and low standards for passing have all contributed to a situation where most children coming out of public schools and even some of the private schools cannot pursue higher level studies or even take up jobs commensurate with their training or education. In a way matters are dire enough to impose an education emergency where whosoever forms the government next promises to take up the cause of quality education for all on a priority basis and in fact as the first priority.

The promise of education for all is no longer enough. If it means that we will just spread the currently prevailing standards of education for all, it will not address the problems that we are pointing out. It will not help in the development of the society, it will not allow us to have a better trained workforce, it will not allow us to compete with the rest of the world on the basis of better labour, and it will not allow us to create a more progressive and open society in Pakistan. For all of the above to happen, we have to not only educate all the youth of the country, we have to educate them with clear quality benchmarks in mind. Only a promise of quality education for all, and clear prioritisation for this promise can deliver on this.

There are many who will raise the issue of what it will cost us to achieve this and where the money will come from. Firstly, we do have quite a few schools, in the private sector as well as some in the public sector, that are delivering good quality education even now and even when the larger system and the majority of schools are poor. We could take per child expenditures from such schools for estimating the overall cost of the endeavour.

Research that some of us have been conducting, under the title 'what works in education and why', also shows that the cost, per child, for quality education, is not going to be much higher than what we are already spending on giving poor quality education. So the overall estimates, though substantial, are not likely to be beyond our reach as a society. But more importantly, even if quality education for all entailed significant expenses, what is the option we have? We cannot say that we are not going to educate the people of Pakistan. Only through educating the youth can we develop the society further. So even if it costs us a lot it has to be done. We might have to phase the programme in to ensure we have enough for our purpose, but we cannot do this.

There are others who will say that we have seen that the public sector cannot deliver this to the people, and so it would be a waste of resources to give more to the public sector. It is true that public sector provided education is predominantly of poor quality, but a) our research shows that there are still schools, in the public sector, and working against the odds, that are delivering decent to good quality education, b) there is no inherent reason why public sector institutions cannot be reformed, c) there are areas, sectors and economic classes to whom private sector will not provide services, and d) there are plenty of private sector schools too who are giving poor quality education as well. Having said the above, we are not arguing that quality education for all promise be operationalized through public sector education alone. The task is too big for that. We will need private sector involvement, support and action as well. But, nonetheless, the responsibility for ensuring quality education to all has to lie with the government. Whether they deliver it directly, do it in partnership with the private sector, fund it but not deliver services themselves and so on, are second order issues that can be tackled later, based on technical analysis and feasibility, once the initial imperative for providing quality education to all is acknowledged.

In a way giving education is a simple matter, unlike say providing health services and so on. All we need is physical infrastructure and hardware (building, furniture, books and so on), students, and a teacher. Quality education has to deal with a) providing the physical facilities, b) getting a trained and motivated teacher there, c) getting students there, d) putting in systems in place that would keep the teacher, students and the community motivated and e) having effective monitoring and evaluation and human resource systems in place to manage and effectively check delivery. This might sound a lot but it is not that difficult to do all of the above. Almost all complex organisations have systems like the above in place or they would not be able to function in even a remotely competitive environment. Furthermore, we have sufficient number of examples, from all sorts of sectors, that the above can be achieved by the private sector, the not-for-profit sector as well as the public sector. The issue of systems is independent of the issue of ownership. But to accomplish provision of quality education for all we need a very high priority for education, and an almost single minded pursuit of the goal from the entire society. This is the promise we seek from political parties right now: a promise to guarantee Quality Education for All. Will those serious about the development of the country stand up and be counted? Is there any party who will include this in their manifesto? If there was serious interest, there would be people who could work on making strategic plans on operationalizing this promise. But to take up the idea, now is the time to speak for it.

Dr Faisal Bari-the nation, E-mail:
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