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The country has seven million children who are out of school, two-thirds of them girls, and most of them lack minimum mastery of math and reading, according to a World Bank report in April 2014. Photo: AFP
The country has seven million children who are out of school, two-thirds of them girls, and most of them lack minimum mastery of math and reading, according to a World Bank report in April 2014. Photo: AFP

Trash-filled classrooms have Pakistanis racing to private school

One in three students now attends a privately run school as a failing public system produces one of the world's highest truancy rates

Karachi: Ayaz Ali stands outside the only school in his southern Pakistan village, struggling to recall the last time the lone teacher showed up. It was at least five years ago.

“I’d come back but we haven’t really seen the teacher for some time now," said Ali, 16, who now spends his days in the fields picking cotton and wheat near Allah Warayo village in Sindh province. “I don’t think he’s returning."

The school is strewn with plastic bags, while urine stains and dried-out feces emit a foul smell. Since district education officials say the school is technically still open, Ali has no alternatives that he can afford.

Ali’s plight shows how Pakistan’s government often poses a bigger obstacle to a quality education than Taliban militants who shot Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in the face two years ago. One in three students now attends a privately run school, up 50% from a decade ago, as a failing public system produces one of the world’s highest truancy rates.

“People are rushing to private schools," said Mosharraf Zaidi, campaign director for Alif Ailaan, an education advocacy group in Islamabad, who added that poor students like Ali who can’t afford private school are the ones who suffer most. “The answer isn’t private, private, private. The answer is to fix the government."

The country has seven million children who are out of school, two-thirds of them girls, and most of them lack minimum mastery of math and reading, according to a World Bank report in April 2014. Pakistan ranked 113 of 120 countries on the United Nations’s Education (UNE) for All index.

Spending falls

Pakistan is a young country, with a third of its population less than 15 years old. Even so, spending on education fell for a second straight year to 2.1% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012, among the lowest in the world, according to the latest available data from the World Bank. That’s about half as much as the nuclear-armed nation spends on its military, budget documents show.

Since his election in May 2013 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has focused on stabilizing an economy hit by a power crisis that curbed growth. Provincial governments are responsible for overseeing education, according to the constitution.

Ali’s school in Allah Warayo is typical of government-run schools, which are often in decaying buildings that lack running water, toilets or proper furniture. Teachers are frequently absent or don’t attend at all.

Mahmood Qureshi, who oversees 960 provincial schools in Matiari district, confirmed that Ali’s school was still open. He declined to comment on the state of the building.

It’ll open its doors “as soon as we have a teacher there," he said.

Unqualified teachers

When teachers do show up, the results may not be much better. Only about a third of teachers at government schools are college graduates, according to Annual Status of Education Report, an advocacy group whose acronym ASER means “Impact" in Urdu. In Sindh, only half of children in rural schools who are around age 10 can read a story in their native language.

The state government controlled by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), in power since May 2013, is compiling a list of non- functional schools like the one in Allah Warayo to get them up and running. It has also fired substandard teachers this year, leading to protests.

“Teachers are the greatest hurdles," said Senator Taj Haider, a senior PPP leader. “They don’t come to their schools, their knowledge is very limited and they don’t want to improve."

Private schools

Private schools are increasingly filling the gap. Pakistan now has more than 150,000 for-profit schools, at least 25,000 madrasas and hundreds of other non-profit schools. That compares with 233,300 public schools, according to the government’s Economic Survey 2014.

Elite private schools in well-to-do sections of big cities can cost as much as 30,000 rupees ($300) a month. These offer better salaries to attract highly qualified teachers and provide a good standard of education.

Many other private schools offer a low-cost alternative for parents, charging the equivalent of $2 per month. These schools, which often just have one room, are usually the only choice in areas where government schools aren’t functional.

The quality in private schools varies, with rural low-cost learning institutions lagging their wealthier counterparts in cities, according to Kamran Rizvi, founding director of Karachi- based School of Leadership, a company that works with universities to develop skills training programmes.

Malala’s fight

While some may set up private schools to make money, others “know the bureaucracy is slow so they may be trying to short- circuit the process," Rizvi said.

Pakistan’s schooling woes caught the world’s attention in October, when Yousafzai, 17, became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The award came two years after Taliban militants shot her in the face on her way to school because she continued campaigning for girls to be given equal rights to education.

Far from applauding her efforts, Pakistan’s largest association of private schools has criticized her for denigrating Islam in the Muslim-majority country.

“Yousafzai’s autobiography “I am Malala" has been banned in member schools because it contradicts Islamic and national ideology," said Mirza Kashif Ali, president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation in Lahore. “The group plans to publish a book titled “I am Not Malala" to respond to Yousafzai’s opinions," he said.

Feudal landlords

Yousafzai’s home Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has made education its top priority since Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek- e-Insaf came to power last year, Mushtaq Ahmad Ghani, the local higher education minister, said last month. It has enrolled 700,000 children in primary schools, started recruiting teachers on merit and added officials to monitor teacher and student attendance.

Other states have also acted. In Baluchistan, the government allocated 29% of its budget for education in the year ended 30 June, higher than any other province. In Punjab, a monitoring unit has cut teacher absenteeism, according to the advocacy group Alif Ailaan.

Politicians often stand in the way, said Atta-ur-Rahman, a former chairman of the constitutionally mandated Higher Education Commission. Poorly qualified teachers are routinely hired as a way to dish out favors in return for votes.

“The feudal landlords who have ruled over us are determined to keep the people of Pakistan uneducated," Atta-ur- Rahman said. “This allows them to loot and plunder the national exchequer at will."

In Allah Warayo village, Ali is stuck toiling in the fields as he waits for his school to reopen.

“I really miss my math class," he said. “If I can go back to school, I will leave this farm work and finish my education so I can get a proper job and take care of my family."


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