By Anjum Altaf
In my previous letter, I made one central point — that, just as for any other product you purchase, you pay money to buy education for your child. And just as you are careful in buying other products, you should be careful to make sure that the education you buy is the best for the money you spend. You should be concerned about the QUALITY of the product.
We live in a market economy and just as there is adulterated milk, adulterated medicines, and low-quality merchandise, there is a lot of variation in the quality of education available. But it is much harder to judge the quality of education compared to that of milk. Unfortunately, there is no agency that protects you or watches out for your interest. You are on your own and the future of your child depends on the care you exercise in choosing his education and demanding improvement in it.
I had also mentioned that in this letter I would start identifying the issues that deserve your attention. We first need to narrow the focus of our concern. There are various levels of education — school, college, university. Which level requires the most attention on the part of parents? I would argue that it is school education which is the foundation on which the others rest — just like the floors of a building. If the foundation is weak, the building will remain fragile no matter how much money is spent to beautify the upper floors.
Within school education, it is the primary grades (1 to 5) that serve as the foundation for school education. These are the make or break years. If your child’s primary school education is weak, it is most unlikely that he or she would be able to make up for the deficiency no matter how much money you spend on him or her later.
Keep in mind these words of wisdom from Sheikh Saadi written almost 900 years ago:
خشتِ او٘ل چون نهد معمارکج
تا ثری٘ا می رود دیوار کج
When the first brick is laid crooked by the architect
The wall will remain crooked even if raised to the stars
So let us focus on the first brick, primary school education, and try to determine how good or bad it is in the majority of schools in Pakistan. Let me approach this with a comparison that is never really made but is very telling. Before a child ever gets to school, he or she spends about five years at home. In this time, most parents are able to teach their children to understand, express themselves, and communicate with others in their home language. The child can talk about events in the past, present, and future; can formulate questions and ask riddles; and can do many creative things like make up poems or tell stories.
Even illiterate and the poorest of parents can accomplish this task which is a huge achievement and an example of good education. I make this point because when, after five years at home, your child goes to fee-charging schools with trained teachers, the schools fail to teach a new language to your child half as well as you did. In fact, even after ten years of school education the child cannot acquire the competence in new languages that parents managed to instill for the first language in half that time.
If you doubt this statement, try asking a typical school graduate to narrate a story in any of the languages he or she is supposed to have learnt at school. Just this simple experiment should alert you that there is something grievously wrong with school education in Pakistan. And, if schools are failing so badly in teaching languages, why do you think they would be doing a fantastically good job in teaching mathematics and science?
This is not a loose allegation on my part. Organizations like ASER (Annual Survey of Education Report) survey school education every year and report consistently on what they call the ‘learning gap’. A very high proportion of students in grade 5 have only acquired the education that they should have mastered in grade 2. Think about this — parents are paying for five years of school and getting only two years’ worth of education. Would you pay rent on a house for five years and be allowed to live in it for only two? Does it surprise you that so many of these poorly taught high school graduates cannot find jobs?
And if schools cannot teach languages, mathematics, or science, what are they good for? If all they can teach is Seerat, Ahadith, and the Quran — which are all of great value in life but do not comprise a complete education — wouldn’t parents be better off sending their children to a subject specialist in the mosque where they can get this education for free? That is probably how many of you got your religious education and you are not lesser Muslims because of that.
This incredible failure of school education raises a number of critical questions:
What kind of future does a country have where the learning gap is so huge for half its children while another half is out of school altogether?
The Pakistani state has known about out-of-school children and the learning gap for many, many years and done nothing about them except to put an empty promise in the Constitution acknowledging its responsibility to provide compulsory and free education to all children of school-going age. Why has the state done nothing about these deficiencies and broken its own promises jeopardizing the future of the country and impoverishing the lives of its citizens?
Why have parents shown so little concern about the quality of education received by their children and not impressed upon the representatives of the state their unhappiness with the prevailing situation?
In my next letter I will begin to provide some answers to these questions and engage parents in what should be a joint effort to make living in this country a more rewarding experience for their children.
Dr. Anjum Altaf
Former Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)
Click here to read Letter 1