Motorcycle Mission Teaches Some Lessons

by: Qamar Abbas

March 29, 2013

By Zofeen Ebrahim

Mounted on a Harley Davidson, Shehzad Roy, a popular Pakistani singer, is on a mission: to expose the country’s 176 million residents to the good, the bad and the ugly side of Pakistan’s education system.

Stopping by small villages dotting the mountainous terrain, or traversing miles of sandy desert and green valleys and plains, Roy takes viewers on a virtual road-trip for the popular television show ‘Chal Parha’ (meaning ‘Come, Teach’), aired on the private channel ‘Geo’ every Saturday and Sunday night.

The 23-part programme – part of the channel’s initiative to promote public awareness on education and literacy – highlights everything from the dog-eared national curriculum and ancient textbooks to dilapidated school buildings without water, latrines and electricity.

In his hallmark tongue-in-cheek style, Roy ends every episode by assigning the government “homework” – policy recommendations to correct the system.

The show has no shortage of scenes to cover: Roy has already shown his viewers everything from beautiful buildings devoid of teachers to three-roomed schools where a multitude of classes are taught simultaneously by one teacher.

Some episodes have covered children studying in makeshift schools comprised of nothing more than tents, after school buildings were destroyed in the 2005 earthquake. The money earmarked for reconstruction was misplaced, officials say.

For students in rural areas, studying under a tree is all they know. Many classrooms are taken over by village notables as storerooms for animals and fodder.

Things are no better in the big cities, where children can be seen cleverly sidestepping streams of sewage or covering their noses to avoid the foul smell on their way to school, while uniformed students are often crammed into classes with no electricity or ventilation, forced to learn by rote.

The programme quickly became a hit, perhaps because a “picture is always much more effective than words, especially a real one with real stories”, Baela Raza Jamil, head of the Islamabad-based NGO Idare-e-Taleem-o Agehi (Centre for Education and Consciousness), told IPS.

“I have asked my team to consider it compulsory viewing,” she added.

Pakistan lags on education targets

In April 2010, education was made a fundamental right for all up to the age of 16, after the insertion of Article 25-A into Pakistan’s constitution.

Yet, according to Roy, almost seven million children between the ages of five and nine do not go to school and those that do drop out after just a few years of schooling.

Some believe the root of the problem dates back to Pakistan’s inception. According to Haris Gazdar, a senior researcher at Karachi’s Collective for Social Science Research, “The dominant strand in Pakistani nationalism is divisive and has not presented a viable cultural model for nation-building.”

He believes that education, which in “virtually all other countries is regarded by the nationalist elite as a vehicle for nation-building, has no real value for Pakistan’s divided elites”.

Though many families “will invest in their children’s education to the best of their capacity, interest and knowledge, nowhere in the world has universal schooling been achieved through private demand alone”, he told IPS.

“There is no collective demand for education in Pakistan because there is no collective agreement on the cultural model for nation-building.

Jamil agreed, stating that good-quality early childhood education in Pakistan was accessible to “fewer than ten percent of Pakistani children”.

Currently leading the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for Pakistan with several partners and volunteers, she was quick to support her statement with dismal figures: “Seventy percent of government-run primary schools have only one or two rooms for five classes,” she told IPS. “More than 40 percent of schools are without latrines; 66 percent do not have electricity; and children in 37 percent of schools lack drinking water facilities.

“Pre-primary classes in Pakistan seldom have an exclusive teacher or teaching-learning aids, which are required by the national curriculum,” she said.

The gross enrolment rate, including under- and over-age children, at the primary level is 86 percent, out of which 33 percent drop out. Meanwhile, only 18 percent of those who complete primary school are eligible for mid-level education.

Of those who make it to the 10th grade, only 30 percent successfully complete high school and only three percent make it to the tertiary level.

This pattern has brought the national literacy rate to 58 percent, far below the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of 88 percent.

Enlightening and painful

Sprinkled with candid interviews with schoolchildren, and discussions with parents, teachers, government officials, clerics and psychologists in over 200 schools, the show has been an interesting yet painful experience, according to Roy.

Others, like professor A.H. Nayyar, a prominent physicist and peace activist, laud the programme as “riveting” and a much-needed step towards achieving the MDG education target in the absence of government action or proper resource allocation.

“The national education policy of 2008-9, promised a higher allocation for education, but that promise was never met,” he told IPS. According to official data, Pakistan spends just two percent of its national GDP on education.

The travelling TV show also offers glimpses into other reasons youth stay away from school, such as poverty, child labour and early marriage.

The use of corporal punishment is also a strong deterrent. Roy recently exposed the story of eight-year-old Malaika, whose teacher threw a pen at her eye, damaging her cornea and leading to the detachment of her retina. The teacher claims Malaika was “not paying attention”.

That episode prompted three provincial assemblies to pass a resolution scrapping Section 89 of Pakistan’s penal code, which allows “guardians” to punish children in “good faith”.

Additionally, a bill on corporal punishment that had been languishing in the National Assembly (NA) gained fresh impetus after the show was aired. Tabled by legislator Attiya Inayatullah back in 2010, it was unanimously passed in the assembly on Mar. 13, which, she told IPS, was quite “historic”.

When the bill officially becomes a law, individuals involved in abusing children will be sentenced to one year in prison, a 500-dollar fine, or both.

Another episode traced the life of a young girl with no hands who, despite learning how to write using only her feet, had been pushed out of school due to poverty. A few days after the show aired, Fehmida Mirza, the speaker for the NA, presented the young girl with a check for 5,000 dollars in order for her to continue her studies.