Christopher Thomas on the problems of a system hidebound by tradition.
Britain is giving Pakistan Pounds 8 million to improve basic education, particularly for girls, in the provinces of Sindh and the North West Frontier.
The aid package was announced by James Paice, the education and employment minister, during a week-long visit to Pakistan to promote British vocational qualifications.
More than half the money will go to maintain Britain's role as a joint funder of Sindh's primary education programme.
The rest will be allocated to a similar project in the Frontier, where tribal leaders and fundamentalist Islamic clergymen often oppose teaching girls anything more than basic literacy. Hardly any girls go on to secondary school in Pakistan and of those who do up to 95 per cent drop out in some areas, often because of family pressure to marry young.
Pakistan is the third largest recipient of British bilateral aid in Asia and has received Pounds 250m over the past five years.
The education aid will be welcomed by the Islamabad government, which is struggling to upgrade primary education and to encourage more young girls to attend school when money is extremely tight.
Low standards in state schools means the only realistic prospect for educational advancement is through a booming private education system, which is beyond the means of all but a small minority.
Teaching in state schools is exclusively in Urdu or a regional language, making them unattractive for anybody with aspirations for a career in the upper ranks of the civil service, the military or in business, where English is vital. English is a social, economic, professional and academic dividing line: the small number who speak it dominate business and the professions.
Many private schools, however, teach exclusively in English. A typical advertisement for an expensive school in Lahore promised: "American accent guaranteed within one year."
The quality of private education can however be variable. Some women who understand English have set themselves up as home tutors for comparatively high fees and there are lengthy waiting lists at some of the more expensive English-medium schools.
Government schools follow an archaic syllabus, although it is being modified under the influence of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who regards education, particularly for girls, as one of her priorities.
The problem is money. The starting salary for a primary-school teacher is around Pounds 25 a month and in rural areas it is often impossible to find anybody qualified enough to take on the job. Priority is now also being given to teacher training.
On average children spend two years at school in Pakistan, a little worse than India's average and substantially less than China's, where the official figure is five years.
Benazir Bhutto has doubled the budget for education since returning to power in 1993. About 60 per cent goes to basic education but the total outlay remains a modest 2.14 per cent of gross domestic product.
About 150,000 students are enrolled in the Aalama Iqbal Open University, which can reach people in remote areas who would otherwise have no chance of even a basic education. The university mostly uses radio, something which even the poorest families usually own.
Few people believe the official goal of 70 per cent literacy by 2002 is achievable. Only 2 per cent of women are literate in Baluchistan, a region of strong tribal and religious traditions. In Lahore and Karachi the figure is 17 to 20 per cent, the highest in Pakistan.
Government officials say that the best that can realistically be hoped for is a doubling of literacy in the next six or seven years. That would require intensive teacher training and continued political commitment, neither of which can be guaranteed.