Distressing report card

IN the aftermath of the visit by the Chinese president and the optimism generated by the announcement of multiple transport and energy projects getting under way soon, comes a reality check that shows we still are not able to get some basics right. In this context, the Pakistan Education Statistics 2013-2014 report unveils several unsettling facts. According to the report, the primary school enrolment rate in the country has not seen a significant improvement over the last four years. Even more alarming, enrolment at high schools has actually declined slightly since 2012-2013, falling from 2,835,326 to 2,318,840 students in 2013-2014. At the same time, the report found that around 1.8 million children, or one-tenth the number of students enrolled in primary school, are studying at madressahs.

There is much that can be extrapolated from these statistics, although the report itself indicates partly where the problem lies.

For instance, it finds that approximately 35pc of schools do not have facilities for clean drinking water, 31pc are devoid of toilets and 41pc have no electricity. Such shabby infrastructure/missing facilities at many schools, especially in the government sector, coupled with teacher absenteeism and higher than optimal student-teacher ratios is neither conducive to ensuring a productive pedagogical experience nor to retaining students in the education system. Pakistan`s school dropout rate, often cited as the highest in South Asia, has long been of concern. It is related in large part to poverty; many parents see greater immediate advantage in having their offspring contribute towards the family income rather than persevere with education.

Cultural factors also drive girls` dropout rates upwards. These can be countered by some practical measures; for example, by having smaller catchment areas for girls` high schools as their mobility tends to be more restricted compared to male students. Nevertheless, most people desire that their children should receive at least some education, but with a large chunk of government schools suffering from the shortcomings outlined above, and many parents being unable to foot the cost of private schools at least for all the children in a family the madressah system steps in to fill the gap.

A number of studies indicate that enrolment in madressahs has increased over the years; the provision of free board and lodging offered by large numbers of these institutions enhances their appeal for low-income families. Although there is many a question mark over the quality of education offered in Pakistan`s public-sector schools, a seminary education is, by definition, conservative and in many cases, fosters undesirable ideological divisions. The lack of headway so far in madressah reform makes the issue all the more problematic.

The federal and provincial governments must summon the requisite enthusiasm to address the intensifying education emergency.

Necessary as infrastructural development is, improving school enrolment will have a far more long-term, transformational impact on Pakistan`s fortunes.

Dawn Editorial