Pakistan elite faces up to future of reforms, not feudalism

9th April 2010 at 01:00
With an education system ranked 163rd of 177 by the United Nations, even the lucky few who attend school face formidable obstacles

"The government be damned!" Mehnaz Aziz says, tossing her scarf over her shoulder. "We're losing our workforce. What are we supposed to do, now all our maids are going to school?'"

This, she says, has been the standard response of Pakistan's educated elite to efforts to extend their education to the masses.

Ms Aziz, chief executive of the charity Children's Global Network, sighs and looks around the narrow, dingy alleyway. A girl in school uniform is on her hands and knees, sweeping the doorstep with a broom made of palm fronds.

"The problem is feudalism," she says. "People think, if we educate the people, then they will revolt."

Beyond the doorstep, down a dark passageway, 260 pupils are crammed into four rooms. There is no glass in the windows separating the rooms: one set of pupils is sitting exams, so the entire school must be silent.

Pakistan ranks 163rd in the United Nations' index of 177 countries' education systems. Only 62 per cent of primary-aged children attend school; more than six million children of school age do not, and half of the adult population is illiterate.

Government schools are overcrowded and under-resourced. Teachers are often political appointees: with guaranteed jobs for life, many simply choose not to turn up.

And illiteracy feeds other ills. Just north of Islamabad, in the North- West Frontier Province, the Taliban has begun targeting schools with suicide attacks.

Ms Aziz leans against the damp-scarred walls of the schoolroom. "Because of lack of education, we have a huge poor population," she says. "So it's the poor who are making the decisions, whether politically or through terrorism."

Slowly, the educated elite is beginning to realise that feudalism has failed. Last summer, the Pakistani Government rewrote its national education policy, and is attempting to encourage the poorest children into school. Free uniforms and textbooks are provided to pupils; in some areas, families are bribed with offers of free wheat, oil and 200 rupees (pound;1.60) per child.

Working together with the Pakistani government, the British Department for International Development has set up a taskforce, intended to tackle the chronically-poor public education system.

The taskforce, including leading Pakistani educationists such as Ms Aziz, is headed by Michael Barber, former education advisor to the British Government.

The taskforce is now looking to Punjab, Pakistan's wealthiest province, as a model for the country as a whole. But bitter experience has taught teachers not to be too hopeful.

Many in the influential upper classes remain more concerned about the ready availability of home help than the waste of working-class potential.

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