Peela school! | Educational breakdown

Peela school!
Sep 04, 2008: While on the editorial team of a local English-language magazine, I came across a term, which made me want to pull my hair - 'yellow school'. I rolled my eyes when I realised that it was the Urdu-to-English translation for "peela" school ... imagining a yellow school in its literal sense, I laughed.

Recently, I was offered a job to teach English to small children. I walked up to the school and lo and behold it was painted bright yellow like a sunflower facing the sun.

The brightness of the striking colour was least attractive to put it humbly. It emitted radiance which mixed with Karachi's sweltering heat and power outages formed a deadly combo. As I went further inside I felt giddy. The walls were painted with dark shades of green, yellow, red, and blue reminding me of the board game - ludo. The only difference being that I did not wish to play it at all.

I was appointed on the spot (without any check as to whether I had any ability to teach) and given subjects of higher classes. I was told that it is very important to remain punctual. The school was supposed to start off a week later than others owing to the fact that it needed to be decorated (as if the rainbow colours were not catchy enough).

We spent a week painting welcome notes on the walls and just before the opening day we realised that there were only four classrooms apart from the Montessori section (and the school was supposed to teach till matric). When we showed our astonishment to the owners of the school, they showed escorted us to the back of the building where five more classrooms had been squeezed in out of nowhere. To give you a small description of these 'classrooms': Well, they were rooms (more like horse stables) with four walls and iron sheets laid on top.

The school started off with a bang. The bang came in with thunder and rain, children yelling and running everywhere, the principal trying to look as if everything was under control, but rain poured heavily from all sides of those horse stable-like class rooms.

The senior classes then had to be shifted into the Montessori section as a precautionary measure to avoid any mishaps through electric shock there. When finally, I got the chance to talk to my class, I asked my students how did they liked their new school? They said, a peela school was much better than this 'yellow' one.

I couldn't sleep the whole night. Is this how a school works? The only thing they cared about was money. Fleecing the parents through different marketing techniques they provided their children with nothing much in a poor environment. How could students be taught in stuffy, dingy classrooms and wet floors?

"Students need healthy surroundings where they can nurture and develop into fine individuals. How can they even concentrate on their studies in such a place," said one of the senior teachers.

Then another complained of the meagre amount being paid to the teachers: "My salary almost equals to that of a maid. Soon there will be a day when maids would be earning more than teachers. If the literate and illiterate are being paid the same amount, what incentive is there to learn, especially, if the teaching community is not respected and paid so little that they cannot even give quality time to the students due to their own worries. As a result, you have the growing culture of tuition centres where teachers can charge extra fees to do what they should be doing at schools."

On the last day of my first week at the school, the course coordinator inquired about my method of teaching. When I explained that I wanted to try and create in them the ability express their thoughts aloud and on paper, he wasn't very happy. "Children cannot write, of course. You will have to write an essay on a given topic and tell them to learn it by heart. They can reproduce. Punish them severely if they do not. All of our campuses follow this pattern and we cannot go differently," he said.

With such noble heads running a chain of schools, I wondered if there was ever going to really be a uniform system of education that could help children grow into responsible individuals.

Would anyone ever come to inspect such yellow schools? Will the teachers, whether from an elite system of education, mediocre schools or those belonging to the lower strata, get any kind of proper training? Should they expect to be paid well? Will the students ever be equipped with the kind of knowledge that would prompt them to do things on their own? Promoting the copying from the board method can only produce cheats and thieves trying to make claim what belongs to others.

By Asma Siddiqui (Dawn)

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Educational breakdown
Proliferation of private schools and tuition/coaching centres shows public response to system failure. In comparison with other countries, private basic education in Pakistan enrols more students than in all countries in the region

The EFA Global Monitoring Report 2008 - 'Education for All by 2015: Will we make it?' - is an eye opener. Pakistan missed the gender parity goal set for 2005 and continues to trail behind. We have the lowest scores in South Asia in primary net enrolment and in the net enrolment of girls. And the literacy gender gap has widened since 1972 from 19 percent to 25 percent. At 120, we are at the bottom in the EFA Development Index, ranking not surprisingly with the lowest allocations to education as a percentage of the GNP in terms of the public expenditure on education.

Gender inequalities and geographic disparities epitomise Pakistan's global standing in education. Claims of overall literacy rate increase from 65 to 67 percent (10 years and above population) are overshadowed by the fact that Pakistan has failed to increase the literacy rate among females, today stagnant at 42 percent.

Whether literacy is calculated on the 10+ or 15+ age group, Pakistan remains at the bottom. Compared to boys, more girls have been enrolled in primary schools during the last few years but not at middle and high school levels. Overall, gender inequalities in education have increased and are the highest in Balochistan, followed by the NWFP, Sindh and Punjab.

The quality of education achieved through several years of consistent policies and teacher training has declined in NWFP, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and FATA over the last few years.

In the NWFP and FATA, girls' education has been specially targeted by religious militants. Schools have been burnt with threats to students and teachers attempting to find alternate venues to hold classes. The impact of the devastating earthquake whose victims included thousands of schoolchildren and school buildings in AJK is still visible. With an ongoing low-grade war, education in FATA is at best sporadic. Many settled areas not doing much better.

It is futile to keep track of schools in rural Sindh; they materialise and vanish with donor-funded projects. Centuries of entrenched wadera and sain power structures are impervious to people's empowerment with school-going age girls given in exchange for crimes committed by men. Beyond an initial breakthrough in the nineties, the community has not been able to transform the educational landscape in an increasingly tribal Balochistan, one that condones killing and live burial of the female sex for the sake of male honour.

In addition to socio-cultural norms, inadequate facilities, poor governance, politicisation of the education system, inadequate capacity, ad-hocism and piecemeal approach in planning and weak donor coordination emerge as the major challenges to education in Pakistan, including Punjab, currently the beacon of hope.

Even with better educational indicators the pace of change in Punjab is slow, as every time the government changes so does the policy. The exercise of power is concomitant with transfers, dismissals and new appointments. This includes teachers and officials of the education department.

Education is on the move, going nowhere. The recent changes in the school year are an example in point. The school calendar was changed from April to September in 2005 when students found themselves out of school for five months and taking their annual exams in the hottest month June. With the school year reverting to its earlier spring date, schools have reopened after the summer vacations in September this year and annual exams are scheduled for March. For teachers and students, this translates into completing the year's syllabus in six months interspersed with two Eids and Ramadan. Furthermore, teachers upgraded from primary schools in November last year have yet to be replaced. The impact on education and learning can only be negative.

Eight years of schooling forms the base of the education pyramid in most countries, even the Constitution of Pakistan ensures provision of free and compulsory elementary education to all citizens. Yet for 3.7 primary schools there is only one middle school catering to classes 6-8. So only one-third children or 5.6 million girls and boys who complete primary education enter class six.

Furthermore a Gender Parity Index of 0.7 shows that roughly only two million girls are likely to receive eight years of education. Gender disparities are also more in rural as compared to urban areas at all levels. With the level of disparity rising with each level there are twice as many boys as girls in rural secondary schools. In FATA, less than half of the enrolment in primary is female.

Proliferation of private schools and tuition/coaching centres shows public response to system failure. In comparison with other countries, private basic education in Pakistan enrols more students than in all countries in the region or in most other countries.

The National Education Census (2005-6) found 31 percent enrolment in the private schools. In urban centres these have outstripped the public sector. Sadly even here quality is highly compromised. Schoolchildren spend the better part of the day in schools, coaching centres or doing homework, and yet the results are abysmal. Approximately 20 percent of students who entered Class 1 reach grade 10, and less than a quarter of students appearing in the matriculation examinations this year have been successful. Low transition rates reflect the inefficiency of the education system.

Given a population of 5- to 9-year-olds of some 19.5 million, seven million children still remain out of the education system. Government enrolment drives show a sharp increase in children in the first two years of primary school - including pre-primary - but the fact that only about half transit to Class 2 (555 out of every 1000) shows the inability of the system to retain them.

What is achieved is short-term political mileage, sustaining the gains requires additional inputs in terms of teachers and teaching learning materials. Currently, teacher shortage is a key area of concern, one that affects the quality of education on offer. The shortfall runs into thousands in every province and at each educational level.

Only one out of two children can continue their education from primary to secondary for lack of facilities. And, one out of four children of the relevant age group wishing to study to upper secondary level have this opportunity.

Countries making significant progress towards UPE have generally increased their spending as a share of GNP. To improve its rating, Pakistan has to move from the one- or two-room two-teacher school concept; build in accountability and transparency mechanisms; depoliticise education; increase planning, monitoring and financial capacity at sub-provincial levels; and develop a sector-wide approach in planning and work towards coordinating donor inputs. For the new government, a heavy mandate carries a heavy obligation.

Fareeha Zafar
Dr Fareeha Zafar is Director, Society for the Advancement of Education (SAHE), Lahore (Daily Times)

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