Education in Pakistan has remained a low priority all these 68 years. This, despite the fact that the very first conference held in Pakistan was on education where Quaid-e-Azam declared that, “education is a matter of life and death for Pakistan.”

While there was has been a substantial increase in the number of schools, colleges and universities, Pakistan remains one of the most illiterate countries in the world. 60 million Pakistanis today cannot read or write.

Again, the quality of education imparted, barring a small number of outstanding educational institutions, is generally sub-standard. Why so?

It is easy to explain the reason for this disappointing state of affairs. Primarily it is a lack of political will. This grievous deficiency is rooted in the mindset of our feudalistic political leadership (even the urban elite is tainted by it). How else to explain that Pakistan spends less than 2% of its GDP on education. (The minimum recommended by UNESCO is 4%; most of the developing countries spend 4% or more on education).

This mindset can best be seen at play in the most feudalistic province where barring Karachi and one or two other cities, education budgets and programmes have been used as a means of rank patronage, misuse of assets and corruption.  Thousands of schools remain closed for years, occupied as they are by influential elements.

According to a recent report published in a leading newspaper, prior to the new system of recruitment of teachers in the Sindh province, 30,000 extra teachers were recruited on an adhoc basis—many of them on fake appointment letters. “We have written to the Accountant General to stop their salaries and have ordered an enquiry” said the Sindh Education Minister while talking to the press the other day. Under the Reform Support Unit, a donor controlled new recruitment system is operating now with the components of a test for the candidates by the National Testing Service and district recruitment committees. While this system provides a distinct improvement in the methodology, it suffers from inordinate procedural delays. According to the head of a teachers’ association, there is a backlog of 16,000 “letters of appointment” to be issued about posts advertised in 2012. Most of the selected primary school teachers have yet to receive orders.

Education-wise, Punjab has done better. If however, you talk to the Teachers’ Associations office-bearers, their litany of grievances paints a none-too-happy picture. For one, they rightly complain that they are used for non-teaching chores.  According to a recent survey conducted by SAHE (Society for the Advancement of Education) in partnership with Alif Ailan, teachers claim that they have to spend 53 days or so a year on non-school duties.

While the Directorate of Stall Development has done a commendable job in imparting induction and in service training to newly recruited teachers, tens of thousands of new recruits have yet to be attended. And sadly, enough training has yet to be provided to the primary school teachers whose number exceeds one hundred thousand. In other words, even a good teacher training programme suffers from serious inadequacies. Punjab boasts of spending 26% of its budget on education. Most of the funds for schools go for salaries and bricks and mortar and little for reform and upgrading quality. In fact, quality remains a major failure. A lot of emphasis is laid on increasing enrolment. Not because it is obviously needed, but the major motive is to win some credit internationally in view of commitments made. The MDGs for instance require a 100% primary education rate by the end of the year 2015 which of course demands special efforts to bring to school more children. But even these enrolment drives yield only limited results. The net primary school enrolment rate for Pakistan is just around 66%. Only 50% of the girls are not enrolled. No wonder Pakistan will fail to achieve the EFA targets.

Another reform that the Punjab government introduced in schools a few years back, was to turn the government schools into English medium institutions. The implementation however, became problematic. Where were the teachers to deliver English lessons in various subjects? Many primary school teachers posted for imparting English from class 1 were transferred to meet the demand. Punjab also shares some of the other deficiencies and distortions mentioned in the SAHE survey which hamper teachers’ ability to perform effectively viz a viz overcrowded class rooms because of lack of space, multi-grade teaching, poor quality text books and lack of equipment and facilities.

On October 5th every year, World Teachers Day is celebrated all over the world. Director General UNESCO’s message on the occasion last year was “Invest in Teachers, Invest in the Future.” She rightly said that education in a country is as good as the quality of its teachers. The last Asia Pacific Conference on Education held in Bangkok too focused on the teachers. The theme was: Powerhouses of Education: Teachers for the Future We Want.” Excellent presentations were made at the conference on such subjects as teachers competencies, roles and identities, expectations now and for the future; professional development of teachers, experiences from various countries; teachers for early years; models for teaching Science and Mathematics effectively, operationalization of inclusion in teaching and learning, status and working conditions of teachers; use of ICT in teacher education programmes; preparing for the world of work- the role of the teachers. Experts and scholars from all over the world including Japan, China, Australia, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, US and Europe participated in the Conference and shared their valuable experiences and insights. It is a pity that the government of Pakistan took little notice of this important international conference.

The PACADE delegate, after attending the conference, helped organize a Symposium on teachers in Pakistan where emphasis was laid on motivation, their professional development especially on pre-service and in-service training, working conditions in schools as also on the need for legislation for certification and licensing.

It is time conferences and workshops are held by governments at the centre and in all the provinces on the crucial role of the teachers particularly those entrusted with primary school education when children’s minds are nurtured and moulded and where they can be inspired to develop thinking skills, good behavior and where they may imbibe values like tolerance and discipline.

It is also time teachers’ voices are heard by government policy makers and functionaries and their legitimate grievances and demands addressed.