April 23, 2018
QUITE soon, political parties will, hopefully, start thinking of their manifestos and the key messages they want to send to their voters ie what the parties stand for, and what they would like to achieve if they are elected and brought to power. Education, as per history and tradition, will get some space in their manifestos.
Article 25-A, the right to education for all five- to 16-year-olds in the country, was added to the basic rights section of the Constitution in 2010 as part of the 18th Amendment, but eight years later we have still not done the basic work needed for implementing 25-A. Maybe, political parties should think about committing to the implementation of 25-A in letter and spirit if they win and come to power.
Traditionally, whenever education has been mentioned in manifestos, it has usually been done so with reference to a) increasing education financing to a certain percentage of GDP, b) curriculum reform, c) role of national language and medium of instruction, d) multiple examination systems and the need (or not) to introduce uniformity, and so on.
A key priority needs to be planning for the implementation of Article 25-A.
All of these are indeed important issues and should be focused on. But what is missing from the discussion is an overall frame in which these issues, and others, need to be embedded. Without a framework, conceptual as well as practical, it is almost impossible to see how we can set targets for ourselves, measure performance and see if promises have been kept or not.
As we are coming closer to the elections, parties have started ‘celebrating’ what they have accomplished in various areas, including education. The three main parties, in power, in the bigger provinces, are telling us that they have raised education budgets a lot, have increased teacher salaries and grades, have improved teacher recruitment and deployment policies, have provided a lot of infrastructure facilities, and have improved examinations and even the curricula.
In addition, scholarships have been given, laptops and tablets distributed, nutrition and transport programmes piloted. Think of a possible reform, and these provinces have tried and/or implemented them. And there are some results that can be seen as well — enrolments at the primary level have responded a little. The evidence vis-à-vis learning outcomes is not clear though.
But if one were to ask if any provincial government thought through how it is going to implement Article 25-A (and in what time frame), the answer would be a big fat ‘no’.
Compulsory education laws have been passed in some places and drafted in others. But that has been more or less the extent of the progress made. The rules of business and regulations needed for implementation of compulsory education laws have not been made and/or have certainly not been implemented.
None of the provinces have conducted a serious exercise to ascertain what it would take, in terms of financial and human resources and the time frame, to be able to implement Article 25-A. Given that 25-A is in the basic rights section of the Constitution and is the responsibility of the state (“The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years…”), should it not be one of the foremost responsibilities of provincial governments to work on actionable plans for implementing 25-A? If education efforts, by parties, are serious, how do we reconcile these with the almost complete ignoring of 25-A?
Out of 37,000 primary schools in Punjab, more than half are still two-room schools. Punjab has only 15,000-odd middle and high schools in the province. There are still areas that do not have any high school for girls for miles. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still has districts that do not have a single high school for girls. The situation in interior Sindh is no different. Learning outcomes, across Pakistan, leaving aside the small high-fee private school sector, are generally very poor.
As parties start thinking about manifestos for the next election, a key priority needs to be planning for the implementation of Article 25-A.
Simple messages of doubling education budgets or even quadrupling them will not do. Promises of universal education, without costing and implementation strategies/plans will just be ‘cheap talk’. Promises of a uniform schooling system for all, when 40 per cent of the enrolled children attend private schools and millions of children are still out of schools, mean nothing. Promises about language, when the state has no effective control over what is going on in the education sector, are mere aspirations.
Political parties need to do much more than what they have been doing so far. They need to do some solid work before they talk of education in their manifestos, if they are serious about the sector. But if the idea is to string along voters, as has been the case in the past, vague promises might still do.
Will any party be brave enough to promise that they will be able to implement Article 25-A fully in the next five years? Or even get there halfway? This would, indeed, be a real promise that could be monitored and followed up on. We would be able to see how many five- to 16-year-olds are in schools, and we would be able to monitor, through the many examinations we now conduct, how well or poorly the children are learning.
Manifestos of political parties, to date, have tended to talk in general terms, especially when it comes to education Post 18th Amendment, given the inclusion of 25-A in the basic rights section, and the devolution of education to the provincial level, general promises are of little or no help in gauging the commitment of a particular party towards education.
We have a very concrete goal that is now enshrined in the Constitution of the country. Will political parties, this time, care to state their commitment to education in clear and unambiguous terms?
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2018
By Faisal Bari