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Head-hunted by generals to run the state system

Within days of the military coup that installed President Musharraf in 1999, Zubeida Jalal was interviewed by two generals and plucked from running a remote school in rural Balochistan to lead Pakistan's education system.

At her house in Islamabad, the former headteacher employs 24-hour care for her toddler son. Hundreds of miles away in her remote constituency her sister runs the 1,000-pupil Mir Jalal Khan secondary school for girls. This leaves Zubeida free to grapple with her greatest challenge: how to raise Pakistan's 60 per cent literacy rate on a meagre budget.

Education's share of government spending is a tiny 0.37 per cent.

Officially 21 times as much is spent on defence but the real figure may be much higher. Fewer than one in three children enrols in secondary school in Pakistan, which has one of Asia's worst records on educating girls.

Ms Jalal, 43, has also had to persuade religious leaders to come to terms with her policy for modernising the curriculum in the 20,000 madrassas or mosque schools which offer free education to the poor.

A minority of madrassas, and the adult camps that sometimes follow, are seen as breeding grounds for terrorists. If all madrassas accept the government offer of paid teachers in mainstream subjects and free textbooks then, the minister says, hundreds of thousands more children can be educated. "They have responded well but it's taken two years to get this far," she says.

Educated at an English-medium school in the 1970s in Kuwait, where her father worked for an oil company, she returned home to Mand, Balochistan, near Pakistan's border with Iran, in 1982. She wanted to be a doctor, but it was an impossible dream.

Instead, her father, a progressive and influential tribal leader, urged her to start a school for girls in his communal meeting room. "No one thought to send their girls away in those days," she says.

She learned Urdu (Pakistan's official language) at night and taught lessons by day. "I only spoke Balochi, English and Arabic," she says. Eventually she got a masters degree in English.

Now the school, which is named after her father, has permanent premises with a boarding house and community rooms where mothers take literacy classes, use computers and receive family planning advice. President Musharraf has visited the school by helicopter and is building roads in the region with new schools and mobile clinics. It is part of a national plan to reach areas hitherto untouched by public services.

Improved teacher training, new textbooks and spreading the use of English are part of a quality drive across the country. It is a mammoth task: "But I have politics in my blood," she says.

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