What a fall – Zubeida Mustafa

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TWO recent events should bring the inequity in education in Pakistan into the public discourse. If that does not happen, to blame will be those who benefit from the oppression of the weak. They are averse to talking about inequality and those who remain silent, tacitly become exploiters. One event was the release of the Annual Status of Education Report focusing on the unequal learning losses during the pandemic. The second is the formal inauguration of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) by the prime minister.

ASER sheds light on how the Covid-19 pandemic and the intermittent lockdowns have impacted severely on education in Pakistan. It confirms what the Federal Ministry of Education had conceded last year. The crisis has “magnified the risks and vulnerabilities of an already weak education system”.

School enrolment in Pakistan has gone down by two per cent and learning losses have been stupendous. According to ASER, 32 pc children between five and 16 years of age are now out of school. I would add that those who have dropped out due to the schools being closed for long stretches are unlikely to ever return to their classrooms. They are all poor and some have even joined the workforce to become juvenile breadwinners for their families.

Worse than the falling numbers are the falling learning outcomes. ASER compared the competency of students of grade 5 in 2021 with students of the same grade in 2019. It discovered tremendous losses in their language skills and also in their mathematical ability. The progress made in 2015-2019 had been reversed considerably in 2021. The percentage of children who could read a grade 2 level story in Urdu had increased from 15pc to 24pc between 2015-2019 but then dropped in 2021 to 22pc. Similarly, in arithmetic, where the percentage of students who could work out two-digit division sums increased in the same period from 9pc to 20pc, only to drop to 16pc in 2021. In the English competency test, the results were stagnant at 23pc. This performance is disappointing.

Learning losses have been stupendous due to Covid-19.

ASER analyses the factors responsible for this situation. Poverty and low learning outcomes go hand in hand. Unfortunately, lack of access to remote learning technology; no assistance from schools; lack of educational capacity in parents to provide meaningful support to the child; and children’s limited self-learning potential are the lot of the indigent.

For over a decade ASER has rendered great service to the nation by recording the poor performance of our schools especially where the children of the underprivileged study. A disquieting aspect is the enormous disparity between high- and low-income classes.

While 34.4pc children from the highest income quartile were able to read full Urdu sentences, only 17.53pc belonging to the lowest quartile could do so. Similar gaps in learning outcomes were observed in English reading and arithmetic. During the school closures, the gaps in learning outcomes as well as shortcomings in school infrastructure have been exacerbated due to the growing disparity between private and government schools. Only the poorest of the poor are enrolled in public-sector schools and they constitute the majority.

It is this inequity that must now be talked about. Without addressing this issue we can be certain, as the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen warns, poverty can never be eliminated. Sen regards good basic education for the working classes, especially for women, essential for growth and development of a country. Hence the need for all education to be equally good for all. Social justice demands equal opportunities for all children which is possible only if such gaps as identified by ASER are removed. Sen believes that only the state can ensure that equality.

The SNC was proclaimed to be the solution of this problem by the PTI. It is now obvious that the PTI’s understanding of the issues is misplaced. The SNC does not level the playing field for all. It only tries to make the content of education uniform all over the country and do away with all diversity in the name of unity. Sindh has chosen to stay out of this scheme but not for reasons of the inequity it fosters. The disparities persist.

This situation is dangerous. Education in Pakistan has been robbed of its credibility, though those affected by it do not realise it as yet.

Our public sector education is producing ‘neem hakeems’ who are dubbed khatra-i-jan (half educated physicians posing a threat to life). This realisation will dawn on the youth sooner or later, given their social media derived awareness. They will then feel cheated. Thus will emerge a generation of frustrated and angry men and women.

How will this problem be addressed then? It is an explosion waiting to happen. The youth will know that they have been led up the garden path to be cheated of the reward they had been promised.

Then why this silence?

www.zubeidamustafa.com

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2021