By Zubeida Mustafa
The gravity of the education crisis is indeed mind-boggling. If one were to only identify the problems that need to be addressed in this area, the list would be unending. It includes the standard of pedagogy and the quality of curricula and textbooks.
Similarly, there are as many solutions and strategies that are offered. The managers of private schools, especially the elite ones, feel they could perform very well if they were left to run their institutions as they wished. They believe that the government would do better to mind its own schools and improve their performance.
There is an element of truth in this. But how does one induce the education department to do its work? There are also numerous NGOs and trusts which are working at the grassroots level and trying to take education to the masses.
They do not have the clout to work outside the framework set by the government and get away with it. Neither do they have the financial resources to invest in their schools because the people they serve cannot afford to pay the kind of fees the elite schools charge.
As a result, these organizations which are mainly running schools in the rural areas are constantly facing problems. Although they are doing good work in their limited fields, these civil society organizations feel they are not making any impact on the national scene because of the magnitude of the problem and their limited capacity.
Small wonder, despondency is setting in. It is increasingly being recognized that in the final analysis only the state has the capacity and the resources to impart education to children at the primary level.
So it is the state which must be made to shoulder its responsibilities. It should also be held accountable when it fails to perform, whether it is due to lack of political will or on account of corruption.
A state which boasts of good governance and a democratic system, has in-built mechanism to ensure that it is not negligent towards its basic responsibilities. The opposition in the parliament acts like a watchdog and steps up pressure on the government to put its act together.
Society itself is enlightened enough to know what is going wrong and where, and can demand corrective measures, while an independent judiciary can always take care of the corrupt.
But that is not the case in Pakistan. With all our political institutions in bad shape, there is no one within the system or outside it to protect the rights of the child. The apathy is appalling.
The fact is that only the powerful can demand and win their rights and privileges. The poor have no voice and even if they know what their rights are, they are not empowered to achieve them. Besides, the biggest tool which can help them in their struggle for empowerment – education – is denied to them leaving them helpless.
Seen against this backdrop, it is a welcome move that some professionals, educationists and activists concerned with education for the poor have decided to join hands in a “coalition” to force the government to shoulder its responsibility.
Sadiqa Salahuddin, the managing director of the Indus Resource Centre which runs 114 schools in the interior of Sindh, points out that individually she and others like her carry no weight.
It is not easy for her to get the government to change a policy or provide funds for her projects. But collectively she and other organizations with similar problems can make their voices heard.
Funded by the Commonwealth Education Fund, this coalition which will, in a month, be convened at the national level may be left high and dry when the CEF winds up in 2007. In the past, many such groupings that began with a bang ended with a whimper since they couldn’t be sustained.
But in this case one has high hopes. For one, the coalition for education comprises such committed and determined members who have already been working for quite a few years in localities like Qasba, Orangi and the low-income areas of Sindh. They have been running into problems of a similar kind. They rightly feel that jointly they will be able to make an impact.
At a meeting that was held last month quite a few educationists, teachers trainers, people involved in research on education, curriculum development donors and writers, decided to set up a coalition of the stakeholders to engage the government. It was rightly pointed out that the government is a signatory to a number of international documents that commit it to meet the goals laid down.
There is the Jomtien declaration of 1990 and the Dakar Framework of 2000 which make it obligatory on the signatories to provide education to all children. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) adopted at the turn of the century and to which Pakistan is also a signatory also lays down similar educational goals. But there is no mechanism to hold the government accountable for its lapses.
The coalition is to help the country achieve the key education goals enshrined in the MDG, namely, universal primary education by 2015 and elimination of gender disparity in this field. The coalition members pledged to work for these goals through lobbying, policy dialogues, networking, and awareness raising.
The knowledge and experience of the participants who attended the meeting were remarkable. Together they are running about 2,000 schools in Sindh and can identify the problems and suggest solutions.
While prioritizing the issues, they emphatically lamented the problem of poor quality. The fact is that if this issue could be addressed seriously, it would resolve many of the other problems too. The dropout rate would fall, and the enrolment rate would rise. Of course to improve quality a multidimensional approach is needed.
Thus, teachers training, curricula reform and the development of textbooks would have to be taken care of. None of these are easy matters to deal with effectively mainly because action in these areas means treading on the toes of numerous vested interests. These issues have been politicized as the recent furore on curriculum reform aptly demonstrated.
The success of such measures would depend on the leadership and the willingness of its members to accommodate one another’s point of views and not duplicate their work.
If those who are initiating this move remain committed to their goals the coalition for education should not be a short-lived phenomenon. Its priorities and focus would change as some success is achieved in one area. Its strategy may also shift. But its importance will never diminish because primary education will always be a sector of national importance.