In 2015, Oxfam GB along with the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) undertook a study to understand the multiple inequalities within the society and suggest possible ways to mitigate these. Their core finding was that despite moderate to high levels of economic growth in Pakistan, there exists a high degree of socio-economic inequality in the country. Ever since Economists accepted Capitalism as the undisputed economic order, they have had to grapple with the menace of socio-economic inequality around the world. In this context, equal opportunity in terms of provision of quality education has been identified as a primary source of leveling the playing field. The rapid rise of private schools in Pakistan, with the simultaneous declining standards of the public school system has led to the formation of two distinct sets of educational institutions catering to the different socio-economic classes. This disparity, in turn, has created rigid inequality traps, which have restricted upward socio-economic mobility for the socially disenfranchised. The Oxfam and LUMS study alarmingly claims that 40% of all children born in the bottom income quintile would stay in the same quintile for the rest of their lives, while startlingly, only 9% could hope to achieve some substantive upward socio-economic mobility.
The current situation of Pakistan’s public educational system, especially primary and secondary education is dismal to say the least. The public schools operate to cater to the educational needs of the lower socio-economic classes. These classes lack the requisite access to have their woes heard, or as is the predicament of the capitalist system, they remain too occupied in the struggle for survival to even seek out their basic rights. As per the Constitution of Pakistan, the Government of Pakistan is responsible for providing free and compulsory education to every citizen of Pakistan. While no recent effort on the part of the government could possibly suggest that it has been sincere in fulfilling its constitutional responsibility, this was not always the case. As late as the 1980s, public schools were in a decent state and students from across socio-economic classes enrolled in these institutions. The government was held accountable over the provision of decent education in the public sector, prior to the mushroom growth of private educational institutions. Now the entire upper and upper-middle socio-economic classes have gradually turned to the private institutions. These are the classes that have conventionally had the access to voicing their concerns, and being heard in the capitalist order, based on their ‘higher’ social standing. Public school education, therefore, has been set aside from the government’s agenda for some time now, as the social pressure by the elite to improve the government schooling has been pushed into the background. Instead, regulation of private schools has emerged as a top priority and testament to this change are the protests held by parents of children going to elite private institutions over the sudden increase in school fees, and how the government was moved to address the situation. In the process more pressing issues of government schools, that are supposed to cater to a much larger set of the population, are being ignored or suppressed.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Pakistan Survey 2015 claimed that 65% of the children in the 6-16 years old category in Punjab were attending public schools. Enrolling children in government schools, if at all, has become a norm for the low-income households given their inability to afford the private schools. The disappointing state of these public schools in Pakistan that cater to this vast majority of school-going children is reflective of the government’s relative inaction. For years now, the Pakistan government has maintained low levels of allocation for the educational budget. Till 2015-16, the budget for education was around 2% of GDP, with most of it reserved for higher education facilities. Corruption in managing funds, nepotism in employing administrative staff and teachers, and general misuse of resources has plagued the public education sector. Another stumbling block, in some cases, has been the devolution of public sector education responsibilities to the provincial governments since 2010. Sindh is a case in point, where conventional patronage systems are seen by the enablers, patrons and beneficiaries of those systems to be threatened by increased education for the masses. Therefore, the will to enact the much needed reforms, or appropriately use the designated funds goes amiss in Sindh far too often. Dawn recently reported that a huge chunk of the 2016-17 education budget for Sindh was wasted on increased salaries for non-performing teachers, and no substantive initiatives were taken up with the reserved ‘development fund’.
The high-income households have by and large resorted to sending their children to the private institutions. However difficult it may be for middle-class families to afford private schools, the poor state of the government schools has forced many towards the private educational institutions – approximately 44% of 6-16 year old children in the Punjab as per the ASER survey 2015. These children have fared much better in terms of learning as per the ASER survey, where Grade V students were up to standard in private schools, while the Grade V students enrolled in public schools struggled to keep up with Grade II standards of private schools. While the quality of education being imparted at a number of notable private institutions may be satisfactory, they have nevertheless presented the country with their own dilemma. These private schools are primarily English-medium and tend to ‘discourage’ the learning of the national language, and in certain cases completely over-look the regional languages. As a result, the product of these pseudo-Western institutions are somewhat disconnected from their roots, and often seek their lives and careers abroad. This creates a brain-drain for a developing country like Pakistan, which needs indigenous expertise to develop. Being exposed to the globalized world, these students engender social values that could come into conflict with the values of the larger masses who are products of the public school system. At the same time, given the trend towards nationalism across the globe, a large number of these individuals are returning to Pakistan, bringing their foreign training and expertise, which Pakistan needs at this point in time. The difference in values is exacerbated by the presence of distinct curriculums for the public and private schools; the former adopting the indigenous Matriculation, while the latter is focused more on the British GCSE curriculum. This lack of state regulation in terms of school curriculum creates two distinct, and at times conflicting sets of social groups that are already demarcated on the basis of socio-economic differences.
The income disparity leads to the visible differences in the quality of education and career opportunities, resulting in a perpetuation of the socio-economic inequality in Pakistan. Notions of merit, often become redundant in the face of this lack of equal opportunity. The privileged classes are reluctant to forego their ‘inherited’ privileges to bridge the inequality gap, and the State is ineffective in enhancing standards at the public schools for the eventual uplift of the lower-income classes. Considerable effort and funds need to be allocated to the public schools, and not for the HEC alone. Some of the finest educational systems around the world tend to focus on the initial years of education. Finland is a case in point, where children across the country, regardless of the income status of their parents, are given access to daycare and preschool, which is followed up with kindergarten and primary school. The focus remains on ensuring the same quality of education, and crucially maintaining the same curriculum. In Pakistan’s case, ensuring the same quality of education across private and public institutions might be a distant dream, but implementing a uniform curriculum is a need of the hour. Preference should be given to the development of the indigenous curriculum by improving its standards as required and bringing it at par with global standards.
The healthy change Pakistan has seen over the course of last few years is the increase in the educational budgetary allocation. Although the government is highly unlikely to achieve the ambitious goal of spending 4% of GDP on education by 2018, a feat achieved by some leading educational systems around the world, it can nevertheless take credit in the 2.83% of GDP mark it has achieved in the 2016-17 budget. Appropriate allocation of these funds, with increased focus on primary and secondary public schools needs to be ensured. The failure to live up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), in terms of achieving a literacy rate of 88% by 2015 and gender equality, should be a wake-up call for Pakistan. As per ASER, around 25 million children in Pakistan, of which 13.7 million are girls, still remain out of school. Those who do go to public schools because they can’t afford private ones, find themselves in a desperate situation. The public schools that continue to cater to the large proportion of the society and which could well be turned into assets for the country, remain disfranchised and alienated. Private schools, on the other hand, continue to enhance the educational standards while producing individuals who are often tilted towards a pseudo-western society or those who seek their fortunes abroad. These divergent set of individuals have perpetuated the socio-economic inequalities and this is something that the State needs to address by enhancing public school educational standards.
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