Pakistan's elite faces up to a future of reforms, not feudalism

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
With an education system ranked 163rd of 177 by the UN, even the lucky few who attend school face formidable obstacles. Adi Bloom reports from Islamabad

"The Government be damned!" says Mehnaz Aziz, 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, Ms Aziz 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 in Islamabad, the capital city. A girl in school uniform is on her hands and knees, sweeping the doorstep with a broom made of palm fronds. Nearby, women in hijab rush past, their eyes cast down. A man coughs, and spits into the dust. Opposite, a street seller displays his wares: oranges, cauliflowers, underpants.

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

Beyond the doorstep, down a dark passageway, 260 pupils are crammed into four rooms. A carved stone skylight throws a square of brightness into the centre of the room; elsewhere, boys squint at their textbooks through the shadows. 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. Government schools are overcrowded and under-resourced, and teachers are often political appointees: with guaranteed jobs for life, many simply choose not to turn up. Half of Pakistan's adult population is illiterate.

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 (#163;1.60) per child.

Working with the Pakistani government, the British Department for International Development (DfID) has set up a taskforce to tackle the chronically poor public education system. The taskforce, including leading Pakistani educationalists such as Ms Aziz, is headed by Sir Michael Barber, former education adviser to the British government.

Above the boys' school, up a narrow concrete staircase, is the girls' primary. Where the boys had a skylight, the girls have only absence of roof: several shield their eyes from the unforgiving mid-morning sun.

But, incongruous against the peeling walls, a hand-drawn, brightly coloured chart itemises the Roman alphabet. On the shelf below, trays are filled with wooden building blocks.

These toys are a metaphor made real: the building blocks of the future. Children's Global Network has been recruited to the DfID taskforce because it trains teachers to use equipment of this type, delivering interactive, hands-on lessons.

During a one-day training session, the network's workers offer two lessons to teachers. In the first, staff are given an outline of a butterfly and asked to colour it exactly as the teacher does. "But we have no blue pens," teachers inevitably complain as the trainer reaches for hers. "Is that my problem?" the trainer replies. "You should have brought your own."

In the second lesson, teachers are given another outline and encouraged to colour it in however they like. After 10 minutes of unrestrained creativity, they begin to see the value of education as a hands-on experience.

But the impact of such training is restricted by circumstance. In the girls' nursery classroom, 51 pupils squeeze into a space designed for fewer than half that number. A four-year-old stands up to retrieve her bag from the other side of the room: unthinkingly, she climbs on to her desk and marches across the tables. There is no space between the desks: this is the only way to move from one side of the room to the other.

"We know the importance of interactive activities," says Rehana Begum, the girls' headteacher. "But we just don't have the space. There's no space for play, no space for group work, no space for activities."

Half an hour's drive down a busy dual carriageway, Islamabad drifts into its twin city, Rawalpindi. Here, in a government high school, girls sit cross-legged on the floor, a rattan mat between them and the concrete below. Outside the head's office, a brightly coloured poster lists "responsibilities of good teachers".

The headteacher, Mussarat Jabeen, has been training her teachers to use Ms Aziz's teaching methods for several years. But rote learning is the norm: change is met with scepticism. "Parents come to me and complain that their children can't recite any stories," Mrs Jabeen says. "But they know the story, they're able to answer questions about it. Why do they need to memorise it? We want to equip children with the skills to become independent learners."

Her battle, however, is not just with parents. Many teachers regard classroom activities as an impediment to the curriculum. Others see pupils the same way. Mrs Jabeen says. "I had to tell teachers, you could lose your job if you keep hitting children. But they worry they can't teach without the stick, that children won't listen to them."

While Islamabad has its own urban authority, Rawalpindi belongs to Punjab, Pakistan's wealthiest province. Here, the provincial chief minister has introduced a series of educational reforms. Province-wide tests ensure standardised learning. And on-site inspectors provide feedback and guidance.

Across the playground, 16 new computers are housed in a purpose-built lab. Four thousand such labs have been established in Punjab; each comes with an accompanying ICT teacher. Next, Punjab ministers have promised to deliver a science lab for every secondary.

"Children from the richest families go to the best schools, regardless of talent," says Mrs Jabeen. "But our children have a lot of potential and talent. That's why it's important that poorer children get resources as well."

Sir Michael's taskforce is now looking to Punjab as a model for Pakistan 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.

Back at the boys' primary in Islamabad, pupils finish their exam papers and squeeze between desks to hand them in. Headteacher Riazul Hassan strokes his moustache as he watches the boys leave, chasing one another down the damp corridor. Then he sighs and surveys his empty school.

"A local politician lives next to the school," he says. "We've asked him for bigger buildings. We've told him he'll see results. But he hasn't done anything. How can we even think about help from central government when the politician next door won't help?"

- Read our investigation of Pakistan's forced marriage culture in next week's 'TES Magazine'.


- Less than 60 per cent of adults can read or write with understanding.

- 59 per cent of girls and 73 per cent of boys are enrolled at primary school.

- For secondaries, the figures are 28 per cent (girls) and 36 per cent (boys).

- Less than 70 per cent of pupils who start kindergarten complete primary education.

- More than six million children are out of school.

- Pakistan, India and Nigeria account for 27 per cent of the world's out-of-school children.

- 67 per cent of pupils in Pakistan are enrolled in government schools; 33 per cent attend private schools.

- A primary private school teacher earns between 800-3,000 rupees (#163;6.20-#163;23.25) a month.

- A government teacher will earn between 8,000-30,000 rupees (#163;62-#163;232.35) a month, with the option of a job for life and transfer to different areas.

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