In the new government of Pakistan, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, education will be a key area for reform and improvement. It will be ‘Job No. 1’. Already, policies and plans are in preparation. Education must be given this high priority in a land where the literacy rate is among the lowest in the world, and the number of out-of-school children in school-age is the second highest in the world (just after Nigeria). Yet, it is also a fact that more than eighty percent of children do attend the short five-year primary school, usually starting at the young age of five to ten years. The public expenditure on education is low, less than two percent of GDP. International organisations such as UNESCO recommend a least four percent, and many experts say that it should be five to seven percent to keep up with the modern times and move the economy fast ahead.

Due to poor quality and lack of parent-trust in government schools, a far too high percentage of children in Pakistan go to private schools. Progression to secondary education is low, and certainly to higher education. Technical and vocational training and education (TVET), including apprenticeships in workplaces with formal certification, is a particularly underdeveloped field. Life-long learning and various forms of youth and adult education also lag far behind. Pre-service teacher training needs overhaul so that teachers can become better equipped and feel proud of their profession, which also means increasing the salaries and status of teachers. Most of the in-service upgrading of teachers should be done at classroom- and school levels, less at seminars and courses away from reality.

In spite of this tirade of complaints – and maybe there was no need for me to repeat it all – because we all know it, parents and pupils, politicians and experts, even employers and ordinary members of society. But until now, we seem to have been unwilling to address the issue seriously and ‘take the bull by its horns’. I worked for UNESCO in east and southern Africa in the mid-1980s, based in Kenya, and then in the organization in Pakistan after the turn of the century, in 2002-4. Often, poorer African countries than Pakistan were doing better than Pakistan. Also, realization of the importance of education was generally much higher in Africa than in Pakistan. In Tanzania, where I worked and carried out research from the late 1970s, education for all was already implemented at that time, and major functional literacy and enlightenment campaigns for youth and adults were implemented. True, quality was not always good, but the policies and commitment were there. Education was seen as ‘Job No. 1’ and the only way poor and ordinary people could succeed, and the land could be built better.

Let me mention that much good work has been done in Pakistan, too, for example in higher education, and within the private school sector. Private schools, though, are as much businesses as they are based on educational commitment. It is my opinion that the education sector for at least 90 percent of students must be government run. Private schools, colleges, and universities must be government regulated and there should be control of curriculum standards and teaching methods. Regulated experiments should be allowed and encouraged, both in private and government schools, and experiences shared.

Obviously, private schools must be regulated by the government in such a way that they don’t only have middle- and upper-class students; private schools must take poor students for free and most profits from the running of private schools must be ploughed back – not taken out as business profits, and for large private school chains, even taken abroad. Private schools must not drain the children’s parents. It must be regulated in such a way that the class differences are not deepened, but reduced. Improvement of government schools, and private-government partnership, must be encouraged. It remains a fact that in all countries, education is indeed a government’s ‘Job No.1’. Most schools must be government schools, and if private, government-regulated. In Pakistan, where some private schools are excellent, we must not be lured to believe that the country can be built on private education. As a matter of fact, it can only be built on government education, with some private institutions.

Let me mention that English language schools should be few, notably schools where the medium of instruction and even much of the curriculum is foreign. Yet, there is need for improvement of English language competence, but rarely should English be the medium of instruction at primary and secondary level, maybe not even at university. I am glad that Urdu has in recently been given more prominence in universities, but at that level, students must also be able to use English, and most students may need compulsory English language training at that level. We should use vernaculars, Urdu and English, and have clearer language policies today. We should also admit that Pakistan is lucky to have an English language history since English is in our time is a lingua franca, a bridge language worldwide.

When education is discussed among experts, the above issues are often given attention at the expense of the content and curriculum of schools. What children learn, how they learn it, how the atmosphere and values are in schools, how students are included or not, how the contact with parents and local community is, and how everybody is feeling ownership and pride, are cornerstones in building education for all in Pakistan.

It is important what students learn and how they learn it. But students cannot learn ‘everything’ and not all students should aspire to become geniuses. Well, they may dream of that, but it is rather the schools’ job to pull up and include everyone, and create daily school-days that make children happy. I believe that we in Pakistan have gone overboard in demanding knowledge rather than values and happy children.

The knowledge we learn at school will soon be outdated; the values will live a life-time and beyond. I believe much of the overcrowded curricula can be slashed and a new thinking about what education and learning is, should be introduced. How we think and reason, how we relate to others, and how we feel about ourselves are more important than information and facts. True, facts are important, but only if put in context and not in excess. In the West, including my home-country Norway, we somehow focus far too little on the values; it is ‘in’ to focus on information, facts and skills – that is shallow education and it is not good for the children.

I hope that in ‘Naya Pakistan’, we will focus on building a nation of a new, educated generation, where everyone has learned what good values are, even if they don’t remember all the detailed knowledge and skills. Let us build a land where every child is included and every child can feel good, respected and happy whether they are first-class, average or below. All people are important in a society, and we have no right to make a school system segregated based on bookish aptitudes, wealth of parents, and ethnic, religious or other factors. In ‘Naya Pakistan’, no child and no community must be left behind. Also, let us skip the crap, that notion that to establish a good education system for all is so difficult; it isn’t high-flying intellectual thinking; it is rather simple and certainly possible if we really want to do it; every Pakistani knows that, and there is no time to waste. Let us establish a campaign and a folk movement of education for all in the new land. That is ‘Job No. 1’.


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