Pakistan: Reforming the Education Sector
Pakistan: Reforming the Education Sector
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 84 / Asia

Pakistan: Reforming the Education Sector

Pakistan's deteriorating education system has radicalised many young people while failing to equip them with the skills necessary for a modern economy.

Executive Summary

Pakistan's deteriorating education system has radicalised many young people while failing to equip them with the skills necessary for a modern economy. The public, government-run schools, which educate the vast majority of children poorly rather than the madrasas (religious seminaries) or the elite private schools are where significant reforms and an increase in resources are most needed to reverse the influence of jihadi groups, reduce risks of internal conflict and diminish the widening fissures in Pakistani society. Both the government and donors urgently need to need give this greater priority.

Recent attempts at reform have made little headway, and spending as a share of national output has fallen in the past five years. Pakistan is now one of just twelve countries that spend less than 2 per cent of GDP on education. Moreover, an inflexible curriculum and political interference have created schools that have barely lifted very low literacy rates.

In January 2002, President Pervez Musharraf's government presented its Education Sector Reform (ESR) plan, aimed at modernising the education system. A major objective was to develop a more secular system in order to offset mounting international scrutiny and pressure to curb religious extremism in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. But Pakistani governments, particularly those controlled by the military, have a long history of failing to follow through on announced reforms.

The state is falling significantly short of its constitutional obligation to provide universal primary education. And while the demand for education remains high, poorer families will only send their children to a school system that is relevant to their everyday lives and economic necessities. The failure of the public school system to deliver such education is contributing to the madrasa boom as it is to school dropout rates, child labour, delinquency and crime.

In the absence of state support, powerful Islamist groups are undermining the reform initiatives of civil society to create a sustainable, equitable and modernised public education system that educates girls as well as boys. Despite its stated commitments, the Musharraf government appears unwilling to confront a religious lobby that is determined to prevent public education from adopting a more secular outlook. Public school students are confined to an outdated syllabus and are unable to compete in an increasingly competitive job market against the products of elite private schools that teach in English, follow a different curriculum and have a fee structure that is unaffordable to most families.

Political appointments in the education sector, a major source of state employment, further damage public education. Many educators, once ensconced as full time civil servants, rise through the system despite having little if any interest and experience in teaching. The widespread phenomenon of non-functional, even non-existent "ghost" schools and teachers that exist only on paper but eat into a limited budget is an indication of the level of corruption in this sector. Provincial education departments have insufficient resources and personnel to monitor effectively and clamp down on rampant bribery and manipulation at the local level. Reforms such as the Devolution of Power Plan have done little to decentralise authority over the public education sector. Instead, it has created greater confusion and overlap of roles, so that district education officials are unable to perform even the nominal functions delegated to them.

The centre still determines the public school system's educational content, requiring instructors and students alike to operate under rigid direction. As a result, the syllabus cannot be adapted to combine national academic guidelines with a reflection of the different needs of Pakistan's diverse ethnic, social and economic groups. Worse, the state distorts the educational content of the public school curriculum, encouraging intolerance along regional, ethnic and sectarian lines, to advance its own domestic and external agendas.

The public school system's deteriorating infrastructure, falling educational standards and distorted educational content impact mostly, if not entirely, on Pakistan's poor, thus widening linguistic, social and economic divisions between the privileged and underprivileged and increasing ethnic and religious alienation that has led to violent protests. Far from curtailing extremism, the public school system risks provoking an upsurge of violence if its problems are not quickly and comprehensively addressed.

Islamabad/Brussels, 7 October 2004

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