It was exciting to read the new government’s ‘National Education Policy Framework’, which was launched just about one and half weeks ago. The government has taken on one of the most important areas of the new and future Pakistan early in its time in office. It is proof of the importance the government places on the social sectors and indeed education, and its willingness to address the important issues soon. The government has certainly realised the seriousness situations and urgent needs in the social sectors.

I was particularly impressed by the honesty in the overall description of the state of affairs of the sector. It is emphasised that there is a very high number of school-age children who do not go to school or have dropped out. The figure used is 22.5 million children. It is so high that I can almost not believe that it is correct, and it is essential that the figure is reduced soonest. We all agree on that.

I have in some earlier articles suggested that the situation must be addressed through unorthodox, emergency education ways, as a campaign with attention from top to bottom. I believe less than a full, ordinary primary school should be provided, even using untrained teachers and makeshift buildings, so that the backlog can be reduced in a few years. Even such education, with formal certification, can be good.

In the current policy document, this approach is not used; instead it is simply about increased enrolment, retention and completion within the standard systems. It is important to do that, too, and any government planner and bureaucrat would think that way. But the situation is not normal, hence entirely different and more drastic medicines must be prescribed. PS: I suggest that if the new government follows my suggestion, it will win next elections, too – and if it doesn’t, perhaps it won’t. This is how important this task is for the people of Pakistan and the government.

Furthermore, when about half of the country’s adult citizens are illiterate, it is again a deeply serious issue, with major gender, geographic and economic difference, and to improve the situation should be addressed as the emergency it is – with great potential for development. But the policy document doesn’t seem to give as high priority to youth and adult education as to education for children. I think we should also give the male and female youth and young adults top priority along with children.

It is a right to have basic education, indeed literacy skills, because it is an important foundation for further learning, vocational and skills training; besides, education has a value in itself with an important ‘hidden curriculum’. The policy document repeatedly argues that education is important for economic development; that is certainly true, and therefore it would be a ‘fast-track action’ to give youth and young adults high priority; they would contribute to the economic development sooner than the children who need some years to grow up and become productive members of society.

Unfortunately, the policy paper does not clearly state that education has a value in itself, and that it has ‘hidden curriculum’ values that are important for every person’s life. That is simply to say that all that we have learnt from our parents, siblings, relatives and others, also at school, if we have gone to school, and that all this gives the foundation for each of us for the rest of our lives. Systematic schooling is an important part of this, but we should also respect an uneducated, or unschooled, persons values, knowledge and skills; sometimes, he or she can be smarter and more thoughtful than a schooled person. In any case, in our time, we need systematic education; and literacy is an absolute must for a person, male or female.

The values, ethics, work methods and the overall atmosphere of a school, including how teachers relate to other teachers, how they relate to their students, and how students relate to each other, are furthermore part of the important ‘hidden curriculum’, all those visible and invisible aspects of education. At school, teachers lead the process and fellow students play a key role; outside school, children learn from each other, especially from those who are a bit older who influence the others and become role models. I’d suggest we must in debates and policy documents pay more attention to these aspects of education and socialization, and I’d certainly say we should emphasize the value of education in itself. It is not all only about knowledge and skills, systematic learning and exams. The gender aspects are typically part of the ‘hidden curriculum’.

The policy document has listed and describes four main priority areas for improvement. First, increased enrolment; second, a uniform education system (which includes government, private and madrasah schools); third, improved quality; and, fourth, greater emphasis on skills in further and higher education.

These are certainly all the key fields. I have already commented on the issue of enrolment, and I have touched upon the quality aspects. Let me add that I think the policy document has too much of a formalist and bureaucratic approach to that. I have in earlier articles suggested that the curriculum should be much smaller than it is. We shouldn’t use the term ‘minimum standards’; we should just call them basic or common standards, which should be such that all children can manage to reach them. There must certainly be quality in these fields, but not with targets above what all or most students can reach.

I was impressed by the fact that the government in the policy document clearly lists the three education providers: government, private and madrasah. There are many issues that can be solved if the government succeeds in making it all a uniform system and takes the lead, and in my thinking, that means a national, government system. The private sector, which has grown so large over the recent decades (earlier, there were only some elite private schools), must toe the line and accept regulations by the government; it must also allow non-paying students in its schools, and many other changes. Any country must have a school system regulated by the government, yet, with freedom, too, to have private additions. The policy paper takes up the issue of medium of instruction (English or Urdu), but that is only one of the fields to discuss, yet, it may be a clear hint to the private sector to be a more loyal part of the country and cultures.

I am glad that the role and importance of the madrasah schools are mentioned so clearly. Last time that happened, as far as I recall, was during President Musharraf’s time. There is much to be gained if madrasah schools can become a formal part of the country’s education systems. They need to follow the standard content that the government system directs, plus add their own, like other private schools can also do. Perhaps less realized is that the madrasah schools have important contributions to make to the overall education of the country, especially if we give more attention to moral education and ethics. I believe that is essential without it only being religious education. Religious education, on the other hand, is also important, but separate.

As for the last priority area, notably skills and higher education, I shall refrain from specific comments today. I feel that is a field where more policy work is required. I also believe that the document’s focus on management information, measuring of outcomes, and such other more bureaucratic aspects, is given more attention than required. Education is mainly about what takes places in the classroom and school, and that resources should rather be put there, not in IT. Well, I believe in distance education support programmes.

I welcome the National Education Policy Framework document. But it is only Step 1. Yes, indeed an important step which opens the debate about one of Pakistan’s most important sectors. I want more than a professional and bureaucratic paper. I want the whole country and everyone in it to take part in the discussion and implementation of the broad ‘Naya Pakistan Education Campaign’. Step 1 has been taken with the new policy document, which is not only describing needs and presenting some plans, but also treading the waters and inviting to debate and participation. Since I first came to Pakistan at the end of 2000 (to work with emergency education for Afghan refugees), this is the first time that I believe education has been given such attention for a new start, yes, in the eleventh hour. Now, I am indeed optimistic and hopeful.

 

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid.

 atlehetland@yahoo.com