Pakistan: Stop Supporting Failing Schools
Pakistan: Stop Supporting Failing Schools
Flare-Ups and Frustration as Kashmir Waits for a Vote
Flare-Ups and Frustration as Kashmir Waits for a Vote
Commentary / Asia 4 minutes

Pakistan: Stop Supporting Failing Schools

The U.S. is set to send yet more money to Pakistan's schools, but if it only goes into the same failing system, it will once again be money wasted.

You only need to look around Machar Colony, the poorest of Karachi's urban slums, to see how so many young Pakistanis are being cheated out of a future. Most kids who should be in primary school instead spend their mornings peeling shrimp for small change in the nearby fisheries. Children without a job turn to crime, and not just petty theft, but also kidnapping and drug-trafficking.

Machar Colony's many public schools are in a pathetic state. Most lack boundary walls, running water, toilets, electricity and usable furniture. Still, the key thing they lack, of course, is pupils, whose families simply cannot afford to send them. Of the few who ever complete primary school, less than half attend middle school. It's a poverty trap that only breeds severe discontent and extremism.

On the face of it, therefore, U.S. intentions to continue financial aid to Pakistan's education system would seem a smart move. Sadly, however, given the failure of Pakistan to reform its education sector, the money is likely only to entrench problems such as those seen in Machar Colony, not help solve them.

The rot in Pakistan's public schools goes much deeper than infrastructure issues such as running water, electricity and other things more money could presumably fix. The root cause of the failure in public education, its fundamental and often overlooked flaw, is the utter irrelevance of the what is being taught.

Public schools in Pakistan are bound by a poorly conceived National Curriculum that manipulates education according to political interests, and public school teachers are often forbidden to use any other material. Pakistan's military and political elite has historically placed high priority on promoting loyalty to state institutions, most notably the army, and the ubiquitous National Curriculum is a symbol of this doctrine. It offers a syllabus that alienates students and floods the classroom with political dogma rather than applicable education.

For example, the Curriculum's chapter on "Safety," a key issue for urban slum communities, includes lessons on: "safety from foreign invasions"; the importance of the armed forces, National Guard and police; and the value of "cooperation with government agencies". Class exercises include reciting a Koranic verse, praying five times a day, and field trips to civil defense offices and police stations.

Machar Colony's children clearly have more pressing concerns than foreign attack. They need to know how to protect themselves against the real dangers they face everyday: crime, drug abuse, contaminated water, and STDs and other diseases like hepatitis that spread especially quickly in urban slums. Public school teaches these children very little of what they need to know in their daily life today, and even less about things that might improve their economic prospects in future. Is it any wonder they peel shrimp instead?

President Pervez Musharraf has talked often about education reform, but his programs have not produced any lasting changes. Attempts to liberalise public school content have sparked irresistible opposition. Recently, the education minister ignited a political storm after suggesting her ministry would reform the curriculum and strike Koranic references to jihad from -- incredibly enough -- science textbooks. Shortly after, she recanted her statements and has now been replaced by a former general and intelligence chief, a great relief to the religious lobby that has spearheaded the opposition to "modernising" education.

In the absence of serious reform, outside funds will only re-enforce this obsolete public school system. Fortunately, there are affordable private alternatives.

Within Machar Colony, and accommodating the same demographic, is a school run by The Citizens Foundation (TCF), an indigenous civic organization. This school, like TCF's 180 other schools in Pakistan, was built through local private donations. Its tuition rates are roughly the same as the public schools', but its campus and facilities include science labs, art rooms, computer rooms, a library, and a large courtyard for children to play in. The school's dropout rate is less than five per cent.

It is tempting to attribute TCF's success to its attractive campus, which is certainly an incentive. However, for Machar Colony families that alone wouldn't be enough. Starved of income, most of these families will invest in education only if it yields increased economic opportunities and, at the very least, tangible improvements to their daily routines.

The key to TCF's success, therefore, is its flexible content. The school's textbooks address such issues as personal safety, sexual health, gender discrimination, and family planning, mostly taboo in public schools but essential to a community that lacks access to a government hospital, a police station, and most other public services. TCF's teachers use additional teaching material, like local news reports, to alert children to the real risks and challenges surrounding them. Class schedules are often adjusted to accommodate working children. Most importantly for family calculations, TCF graduates can compete favorably for admission to Pakistani universities.

All this TCF does on a very small budget. It costs merely $5,200 to build a TCF primary school and only about twice that for a TCF secondary school -- small sums considering the current $60 million Education Sector Reform Assistance program funded by USAID.

So long as Islamabad refuses to radically improve the education sector's fundamental input, its content, it won't matter how much money the U.S. sends to Pakistan's schools. It is clearly time to consider redirecting that money to schools that have a better report card.

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