Talking to a delegation from Lahore’s Institute of Fashion and Design the other day, Punjab Finance Minister Mujtaba Shuja-ur-Rehman said the provincial government had earmarked Rs 2 billion in the current fiscal year for the promotion of education at the school level as part of its UN Millennium Development Goals (UNMDGs) as well as higher education. He went on to claim that the attendance rate of schoolteachers has improved considerably, and that the teacher-student ratio is being rationalised. ‘Education for All’ programme must get the priority it deserves for the ability to read and write improves not only the quality of life for individuals, but also efficiency of people producing various goods and services.
Relative to other provinces, the Punjab government has been devoting considerable attention to public sector education. However, regarding UNMDGs commitments, under which Pakistan was to increase literacy rate up to 86 percent by 2015 through net primary enrolment and completion of grade one to five literacy, Punjab too lags far behind. Part of the problem has been Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s penchant for high profile, pricey projects such as the ‘Danish Schools’ and laptop distribution scheme. Considering the prevailing conditions in the sector these schemes amount to putting the cart before the horse. Meeting the UNMDGs required expansion and quality enhancement of the existing public sector schools. Like other provinces, Punjab has its share, though comparatively smaller, of ‘ghost schools’. Many others, especially in the rural areas, function without boundary walls- in some cases even without classrooms and such basic facilities as drinking water and latrines. More often than not, rural schools have no electric supply and therefore no fans during the hot summer months. These factors are a significant cause of absenteeism among both student and teacher. The new money should go into fixing the existing system.
The minister also mentioned hiring of some 140,000 teachers on merit, which is a laudable step. Hopefully, while making these appointments the provincial education department took into account Punjab Examination Commission’s last year’s reports for class V to VIII results that showed poor performance of students in mathematics followed by science-the two building blocks of progress and development. The reason turned out to be an ill-conceived policy of hiring general educators to teach all subjects, ignoring the importance of subject specialists. An English teacher taught science and mathematics or the other way around, leading to dismal outcomes. Equally important is the need to revise school curriculums so as to promote true learning and instill the spirit of free inquiry in young minds rather than making them learn by rote anti-knowledge texts.