On March 29th in Islamabad, Mr. Gordon Brown, the UN’s Special Envoy on Education addressed an International Education Conference. The Conference was inaugurated by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif.

At the Conference, the Ministry of Education Trainings and Standards circulated a document titled “Unfinished Agenda of Education in Pakistan—the Way Forward.” According to a report, also released on the occasion, the main cause for not achieving the Education For All goals in Pakistan is “low investment on Education” and “the weak professional capacity” of the education departments to fully utilize allocated funds.

Both in terms of access and quality, Pakistan’s school education performance remains poor. The Annual Survey of Education for the year 2013 found that most of the students in class 5 could not read Urdu and English books meant for class 3 students, and were deficient in math. The survival rate to grade 5 was less than 55%. As for access, the net enrollment rate was less than 70%. Add to these primary school figures, the adult literacy rate of around 57% and you see the reason why, according to the Global Monitoring Report, Pakistan will fail to achieve even one of the six Education for All goals, by the year 2015. Performance with regard to Millennium Development Goals (relating to education) is no better except for the commendable efforts made by the governments of the Punjab and the Islamabad Capital Territory where primary school enrollment campaigns have yielded good results.

The world average literacy rate today, is more than 84%. Pakistan claims to be 57% literate. More than 7 million children of primary school age are out of school. About 60 million Pakistanis of age 10 and above are utterly illiterate, mostly women.

Why these depressing statistics?

The simple and overriding answer is a lack of political will. While Punjab is trying to increase school enrollments, the quality of education imparted (even there) remains sub-standard. The EFA programmes in the other provinces especially Sindh and Balochistan are grossly inadequate and sloppy.

Political will expresses itself in financial allocations, good policy and good governance.

At the Islamabad meeting, the Prime Minister conceded the importance of education but when it came to financial commitment, all that he could say was that his government would like to increase the allocation from the measly 2% to 4% of GDP by the year 2018. In other words it will take more than 4 years to reach this minimum requirement as per UNESCO criterion.

Gordon Brown in his spirited speech at the Conference, demonstrated on behalf of the United Nations, determination to help Pakistan speedily move forward by announcing mobilization of 250 million dollars to be contributed by the UN and other international entities. He made a strong plea for girls education and committed the support of the UN to meet all financial requirements for a hundred percent enrollment of boys and girls in schools in Pakistan. In this context, Nawaz Sharif’s response was not good enough. Indeed, it left much to be desired.

One missing emphasis at the Conference was the need for accelerating the rate of adult literacy in Pakistan. Precious time has been lost by tinkering with the issue. All that Pakistan can boast of in this respect, are plans and more plans which have remained unimplemented. A few thousand centres mostly set up by the National Commission for Human Development equate the total effort made so far which amounts to only a fraction of the number of centres required under the National Plan of Action. Persistent lobbying by PACADE—the national NGO for Literacy and EFA in Pakistan, has finally convinced the Punjab Literacy Department to prepare an enhanced adult literacy programme which hopefully will be launched this year. Similar initiatives in other provinces have failed to bring any improvement.

The Federal State Minister of Education addressing the Conference, rightly observed that the major problem in achieving EEA goals has been the lack of political will (as already noted above).

Gordon Brown has thrown a challenge to Pakistan to hurry with plans and programmes for ensuring universal primary education and accelerating achievement of other EFA goals including adult literacy, for availing UN’s commitment to provide the required funds

Will the government rise to the occasion and make the maximum use of this timely and generous offer?

As for the Way Forward (the theme of the Islamabad Conference) let me recall Quaid-e-Azam’s message to the first Education Conference held in Karachi in 1947.

“There is no doubt that the future of our State will and must greatly depend upon the type of education and the way in which we bring up our children as the future servants of Pakistan. Education does not merely mean academic education, and even that appears to be of a very poor type. We have to mobilize our people and build up the character of our future generations… Education is a matter of life and death for Pakistan.”

Regarding the Unfinished Agenda, here are some recommendations:

That financial allocations for education be raised to at least 4% of GDP starting with the next budget. A minimum of 33% of the budget should be allocated for development expenditure. That action for legislation to implement Article 25-A for Right to Education in all the provinces should be expedited, along with strategies for implementation. That broad curriculum guidelines be laid down by the Federal government for adoption/adaptation by the provinces. That text books be scrutinized to reflect and promote diversity and social cohesion; there should be no biases and discrimination in the reading material. That district Education Administration be streamlined and designed to facilitate and support school management. That provincial teaching standards for teachers be developed, aligned to the Professional Teaching Standards 2009. That special incentives be provided to attract students in the rural areas like the provision of lunch at schools and stipends for girls. That technical education be prioritized in consultation/cooperation with the industrial sector with secondary options in grades 9-12. That secondary and higher secondary levels with more Distance Learning Programs involving ICTs be introduced (on the pattern of Virtual University and Virtual COMSATS). That the Government take steps to regulate the working of private schools in accordance with national requirements. That the Federal government ensure that each province expeditiously chalk out a literacy plan to achieve EFA targets as far as possible by 2015 (during the 21 remaining months). That each province have a full fledged literacy department (Punjab already has one). That electronic media be used to boost the campaign for enrollments in schools and adult literacy. That Model Adult Literacy programmes be televised from some of the TV channels (as was done in the 70’s and 80’s). And lastly, that an Education Emergency be declared after an extensive debate in the joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate.

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