Our media, both print and electronic, is saturated with noise and fury about politics, violence and corruption scandals. Seldom do they focus on social issues, especially education and health. There may occasionally be an exception or two, but these subjects hit the headlines only when there is a tragic happening like girls fainting in a school or patients dying because of administering of lethal spurious medicines they have been administerd.

Also, while there is a lot of publicity about higher education now and then and news about the distribution of laptops, there is hardly any mention of the tens of millions of illiterates in the country or the state of school education.

Against this context, it is a matter of considerable satisfaction that a non-government organisation has been undertaking surveys of school education in Pakistan and publishes a report on “access to” and “learning outcomes” in both public and private schools, as also statistics about the out-of-school boys and girls.

The Annual Status of (school) Education Report (ASER) released the other day, this year too, reveals a dismal picture. Just read some of the highlights of the report.

l    Close to one-third of the children of 6 to 16 years of age in Balochistan and Sindh are out of school.

l    This ratio rises to 61.2 percent in Sindh and77.7 percent in Balochistan, in regard to early childhood education.

l    In Punjab, the ratio is less although quite large in numbers - being 17 percent or so. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, too, comes close to this figure.

l    In government schools in Punjab, the average absentee student ratio is as high as 14 percent, while it is much higher in Balochistan and Sindh.

l     Almost 75 percent of the students drop out of schools before reaching class-X, while millions leave in the first two years in the primary schools.

The position is equally depressing with regard to the state and standards of “learning outcomes” as given below:

a)    Ninety-three percent of children in Balochistan cannot read a class-II text story in Urdu or their regional language.

b)    While up to 77.6 percent cannot properly read sentences. Even in the case of class-V students, these ratios were found to be 64 percent and 28 percent.

c)    In Sindh, 84 percent of the class-III students could not read properly the class-II text story, while the ratio for the class-V students was 40 percent.

d)    In Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, these ratios were around 70 percent for class-III and for class-V students, it ranged from 33 percent to 56 percent.

e)    In terms of English reading, the failure rate in Balochistan is as high as 94 percent for class-III students and 68 percent in class-V.

f)    In Punjab, only 26.7 percent of class-III and 61 percent of class-V students could read English sentences.

g)    Around 70 percent of children in Sindh and Balochistan could not solve three digit sums.

h)     The failure ratios in maths in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was 44.5 percent and 55.9 percent respectively.

The survey also includes the figures about the lack of basic facilities like toilet and drinking water, as also the availability of libraries and computer laboratories.

What is urgently called for is another exercise to follow up on these findings to bring about the necessary improvements as aptly stressed by Ms Nargis Sultana of the Open Society Foundation.

How correct are these figures? In the absence of any other scientific assessment, one may have to acknowledge the value of this exercise. Mr Justice Khalil-ur-Rehman, speaking on the ASER launching seminar in Lahore, while appreciating its data, emphasised the need for such surveys on the part of the government as well. As Chairman of the Right to Education Commission (25-A Article of the Constitution) set up by the Punjab government, he disclosed that the commission had gathered its own data using all the available resources and that a comprehensive report had been prepared. Hopefully, this report would be made public soon.

All in all, the picture emerging from the ASER survey is quite dismaying. In my  visits to a number of high schools in the Punjab sometime back, I found the infrastructure fairly satisfactory. What was missing was the passion for teaching among the staff and an increasing reliance on the part of students, on tuitions. In many schools, the students were mistreated and even physically beaten. It was disappointing to find that libraries and science laboratories were rarely visited by the students. In many schools, the science laboratories lacked minimal equipment. Many libraries were found closed. Headmasters complained of undue interference by the politicians and the district education staff. A welcome feature in the Punjab schools, however, were the well provided computer labs.

All in all, the state of school education learning-outcomes-wise is quite depressing. At the Lahore ASER launching, the speakers rightly emphasised the need for improving the syllabus and content. A leading human rights activist, expressed his deep dissatisfaction at what is being taught in the schools. The students are, indeed, the architect of the country’s future. He also pointed out that less than 5 percent of the GDP was being spent on the social sector in Pakistan.

In most of the surveys relating to education or meetings held to boost its cause, what is generally left out is the huge numbers of illiterates in this country and how little is being done to increase literacy to catch up with the rest of the world. Imagine a country where nearby half of its population and two thirds of its women cannot read and write. Can a country make any real progress if such a large number of its inhabitants remain deprived of the basic human skills of reading and writing? And this in the 21st century, when computer literacy has become a must for even routine functioning of the society.

With the 18th Amendment, education in Pakistan has ceased to be the concern of the central government, except for the federal territories. There is now no national planning, standard setting or monitoring. Already in Balochistan and Sindh, literacy programmes are practically non-existent. In the Punjab, which had taken the lead by setting up a full-fledged literacy department, there has been a slowing down of activities. The number of adult literacy centres has been reduced considerably, while a much smaller number of CLCs are being setup. The government is disappointingly oblivious of the international commitment to achieve the 86 percent literacy targets by the year 2015.

All the plans, earlier prepared and beautifully printed by the department, have been forgotten. The truncated National Commission of Human Development has, but with difficulty, managed to survive and is presently struggling to supplement, to some extent, the grossly inadequate efforts of the provincial governments.

The 2012 Global EFA Monitoring Report findings for Pakistan are, indeed, alarming. Pakistan, according to its assessment, will not be able to achieve any of the six Education For All goals by 2015.

 The writer is an ex-federal secretary & ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.

    Email: pacade@brain.net.pk