Pakistan's education gamble

About the author
Ehsan Masood is the Editor of Research Fortnight

On 30 November 2006, Pakistan announced what must count as one of the more far-reaching educational reforms for a generation: from September 2007, English will replace Urdu as the language in which science and mathematics will be taught in all state schools. At a stroke, the government has chosen to reverse the policy introduced two decades ago under the military regime of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-88), whereby English is not formally taught in state schools until a child reaches the age of 10.

The new policy is good in principle, because higher education, research and access to better-paying jobs need a degree of proficiency in English that pupils from Urdu-language schools tend not to have. Moreover, introducing English alongside Urdu and other regional languages from the earliest years will undoubtedly make a difference to the lives of many. But whether the government can make the policy work is another matter. Like the Zia ul-Haq initiative, it will need at least one complete ten-year cycle of primary and secondary schooling before it becomes embedded in the education system.

Pakistani government officials, however, have a habit of making life more difficult than it already is. Of all the places in the world they could have chosen, the new language policy was outlined at a press conference in Washington DC. This was the same event at which the Bush administration announced $100 million in education aid to Pakistan.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council/Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006), and co-editor (with Daniel Schaffer) of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press). He has also edited How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network

Among Ehsan Masood's articles in openDemocracy:

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

"Physics in revolution" (October 2006)

"The upside of down" (29 November 2006)

In what would have been a carefully-scripted event, two senior administration officials (under-secretary Nicholas Burns and education secretary Margaret Spellings) linked the aid to counter-terrorism goals. Pakistan's education minister Javed Ashraf Qazi seemed to reiterate this when he said: "Today we have realised that we need to educate our people, otherwise illiterate masses become ready recruits for all sorts of unhealthy activities."

Some commentators have understandably taken this as a sign of American fingerprints over Pakistan's education reforms. The facts are somewhat different. The US money will go towards an education reform plan that was authored in Islamabad, and be an additional part of a $1.5 billion package of grants and loans that Pakistan has been receiving towards education reforms, and which were announced soon after General Pervez Musharraf took power in 1999.

The US is a relatively small donor to these reforms, dwarfed as it is by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the countries of the European Union. The reforms are well underway and include ramping-up the numbers of trained teachers, upgrading failing schools, reviewing the curriculum, subsidising the costs of textbooks and uniforms, raising adult literacy and getting more young people into higher education.

The private option

The total aid package may seem large, but it is nowhere near what is needed if Pakistan is to achieve its Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education before 2015. According to the education ministry's own data some 17.5 million children are expected to be in primary school by 2015, for which some $17 billion will be needed to put them through school. The government reckons it can find $13 billion from existing sources. But it is at least $4 billion short, and most likely will need at least twice as much.

Observers and critics of the government ought to start asking Qazi where this extra money is to be found. They could do something better and ask him whether alternative strategies are worth thinking about. There is good reason to ask. A paper by the World Bank (A Dime A Day: The Possibilities and Limits of Private Schooling in Pakistan, 1 November 2006 ) suggests that additional investment in public sector education could be leading to diminishing returns.

The paper shows that overall enrolment rates in government schools have stood still over time. In contrast, enrolment in private schools has shot up, with the steepest increases in rural areas where you would least expect this to happen. Overall, more than one-third of primary school-age children are in private schools. The authors understandably ask whether it could be possible to raise this percentage further at little or no extra cost to parents.

Why are private schools so popular among Pakistan's poorest, when in developed countries, less than 5% of families on low incomes send children to private schools? A major factor is educational quality. Worldwide, privately-funded schools tend to offer a significantly better quality of education compared to state-funded ones. In Pakistan, however, the difference between the two amounts to a chasm. Pakistan's state schools are notoriously bad.

Some figures from the largest Punjab province are indicative. Some 3,500 schools do not have a building; of those that do, 4,000 are classed as being "dangerous"; 29,000 schools have no electricity; 14,000 have no drinking water; 22,000 do not have a toilet; 4,000 consist of a single classroom; and fewer than 100 secondary schools have science labs.

A second reason for their popularity is that private schools offer better facilities, improved teaching, and early introduction of English compared with state schools. A third reason is expense. Pakistan's private schools offer incredible value for money. The World Bank has worked out that the median fee per pupil comes to $24 per year. Fees are kept low in part because teachers are predominantly female, who are paid less than men would earn in the same job.

A hard choice

If there is demand from parents, and the ability exists to pay towards costs, common sense suggests more needs to be done to develop private schools and to bring them under some sort of regulatory framework. There are excellent initiatives already underway such as The Citizens Foundation, a community group that builds and maintains good schools in deprived areas. One of the benefits of such a strategy for international donors is that it doesn't require billions of dollars to build and maintain infrastructure. Instead, targeted assistance could be used to purchase expertise in teacher-training, schools management, inspections and parent/staff associations.

Pakistan might be a nuclear power, but half of its people cannot read or write, and at least one third of the nation's children are not in primary school. Admittedly, these figures are an improvement on the past, but they still lag behind India (83% primary-school enrolment), Sri Lanka (90%), even Nepal (70%). And they are behind government targets for 100% primary enrolment by 2015.

Private schools can never be the only solution to Pakistan's education crisis, and they will never be affordable to the very poorest. But they remain enormously popular among lower-income families. A strategy to develop them further will in the very least help Pakistan to advance towards its target of education for all.

This is the first of two articles on education in Pakistan. Next: what price phasing out Urdu?