Children in Pakistan disenchanted with education after teachers forced them to clean schools or beat them became the inspiration for the founder of a charitable institution that targets those displaced by war in the country’s north.
Nearly 40% of Pakistan’s 50mn school-age children are not getting regular instruction, even though it has a network of 220,000 schools and has stepped up its education budget 15% each year since 2010.
“It’s not the number of schools, it’s the quality, the attitude,” said Zeba Hussain, who founded the Mashal Schools for the war-displaced children after meeting a group of them during a visit to the hills encircling the capital, Islamabad.
“The teachers, and the approach, is absolutely off.”
Now private schools, charitable bodies, and religious seminaries are piecing together what they call a broken government schooling system, whose budget the United Nations estimates at 2.65% of GDP, or roughly $8bn.
That works out to about $150 per student.
“Students are labelled ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ right from the start,” said Shaista Kazmi of Vision 21, a privately funded non-government body whose programmes for underprivileged children aim to compress five years of reading proficiency into one.
“The government is very slow to respond to calls for change,” added Kazmi, whose NGO focuses its speed literacy programmes in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The standardised curriculum of state schools fails to account for socio-economic limitations, setting children up for failure, said Hussain.
“Students end up with low self-esteem,” she said. “There need to be different models of curriculum which can lift children up from the bottom.”
Responding to the comments, federal education director Tariq Masood disagreed strongly, pointing to population growth and funding as the biggest challenges for government schools.
“No one who is under-qualified can enter the government system,” Masood said. “There are fewer checks in the private system.”
The urban elite turn to private schools to fill the education vacuum, using a British curriculum rather than government textbooks.
“We are privileged to have access to curriculum that allows us to teach reading without rote memorisation,” said Nadine Murtaza, executive director of Head Start, which has 13 facilities in and around the capital.
Such schools partner with charitable outfits and the government to reach children outside the private school setup.
“You have fifth and sixth graders (in government schools) who cannot read,” Murtaza said.
Pakistan’s poorest often send their children to a network of 25,000 traditional Islamic religious schools known as madrassas, which also give them accommodation and food, though few are subject to government oversight.
Such schools have been blamed for creating militants.
Still, some madrassas do provide a good education to those whose families cannot make ends meet.
“In certain cases people send their kids because they can’t even afford to feed them,” said Irfan Sher of the Al-Nadwa Madrassa, where students are taught to analyse what they study.
“The overall policy should be changed,” said Sher adding that Pakistan’s future hinges on what its youth learn. “If they want to change the country, the only way is to spread quality education.”