Educating Pakistan’s next generation
There is little to debate about the state of education in Pakistan. At every level, and in almost every way, Pakistan’s children have been failed by their elders, both within the state and across society. There is a robust debate about the value of education, but one of the widely accepted theories about the public sector delivery of education is that it offers among the clearest paths to establishing a level playing ground between society’s haves and have-nots.
On Pakistan’s 70th founding anniversary, we can choose to look back at the failures of public sector education, or we can establish a consensus on what is required to change the trajectory. I believe it is as important to look forward as it is to look back. In seventy short years, Pakistan has become one of the most populated and youngest countries on the planet. This poses a challenge of scale. Over the next three decades, before Pakistan turns one hundred years old, it will need to provide young Pakistanis with the opportunities and incomes that enable them to explore their potential and live with dignity. While the demographic dividend or youth bulge that Pakistan enjoys can be seen as an opportunity or a threat, it is primarily a responsibility. Pakistani decision-makers do not have the luxury of putting this issue on hold — the matter of opportunity and dignity for young Pakistanis is a question facing over 100 million people below the age of 25. Any debate about Pakistan’s future that does not place these young people at the centre of the conversation is an incomplete one.
Traditional solutions to the question of opportunity for young people can help move the needle a little bit, but they cannot offer the transformational changes needed to adequately address the great responsibility on our shoulders. Low enrolment rates are already improving at the primary school level, but middle and secondary school enrolment still lags far behind. The classroom experience for any child not born to wealthy parents is nightmarishly bad — and poor learning outcomes in government schools and an unregulated private sector are proof of the nightmare. Vocational training, a red-hot trend for several years, represents an endorsement of unequal and separate tracks for the children of rich and poor, and should be reconsidered and reconfigured.
The future for the unskilled is bleak. Every forecast and projection suggests that many vocations currently offering gainful employment will be obsolete before 2030. Children for whom the only option is in a low-skilled profession are being cheated of a bright future, because low-skilled professions will witness an en masse obsolescence. Self-driving cars will make taxi drivers a novelty, whilst robotic arms and basic algorithms will render tens of millions of factory workers redundant.
The idea of Pakistan was rooted in avoiding a future of unequal and skewed opportunities. Cultivating a society where a level-playing field is a distant dream is a violation of Jinnah’s Pakistan. In order to adequately address a bright future for all Pakistanis, regardless of how wealthy or poor their parents are, both Pakistani state and society need to reimagine the provision of education. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s warning for the Muslims of South Asia continues to ring true today, over 125 years since he first propagated mathematics, science and rationality as critical instruments for both the spiritual and material uplift of individuals and communities.
The daunting challenge of a wholly transformed public sector education system is not insurmountable. Smaller countries like Finland and Singapore have identified the importance of level playing fields through government schools, and successfully demonstrated a way forward. High quality teachers is a vital first step, and since 2013, starting with the Punjab, every province has now adopted standardised testing as a litmus test for recruiting teachers. Today over 125,000 teachers in all four provinces’ public sector are fresh recruits hired through the NTS testing mechanism. This trend needs to become standard practise, and the testing rigour of NTS must continue to be challenged and improved.
A focus on regurgitating facts needs to be supplemented, and eventually replaced by a relentless effort to equip children with cognitive skills and creative problem solving. This is not going to be possible in a top-driven, machine bureaucracy. Individual school leaders and teachers need financial autonomy to create classrooms that offer bespoke learning opportunities for children. This is not achievable in a short period of time and requires cross-party political consensus on the importance of cognitive skills and creativity, over and above narrow political interests.
Ultimately, the idea of Pakistan can be actualised only when all Pakistanis, from all religions, all genders, all ethnicities and all parts of the country feel like their children have a reasonable chance to fulfil their potential as human beings. That can only happen when every child goes to school, stays in school, and learns to apply her or his mind with confidence and dexterity. That ultimately is the surest path to the Pakistan of Jinnah’s dream. On Pakistan’s 70th birthday, that is a dream worth keeping alive.
This essay was first published by Jinnah Institute’s Independence Day special feature.
The writer is an analyst and commentator
Published in Daily Times, August 24th 2017.