Separate but equal?


SARA, who turned eight a few days back, does not attend school. The reason: her parents are too poor. The government primary school nearby is free and also provides free textbooks but both her parents work and she has no one who can pick/drop her from school. As the eldest sibling, Sara has to be home while her parents are not. She wishes she could have become a doctor.

Zartasha, at 11, dropped out post primary. The government middle school was too far away and her parents could neither pay for private commercial transport nor could they afford the nearby private schools. She wanted to become a teacher.

Zehra is 16. She is enrolled in grade nine in a government high school. She wanted to be an engineer, but her school does not offer science subjects in grades nine and ten as it has neither laboratory facilities nor teachers who can teach physics, chemistry and biology. So she is studying arts subjects. She is still very grateful that she is in school when a lot of her friends have had to drop out; some are married while others are just sitting at home and doing nothing.

These stories are not atypical. This is what millions of children face every day in Pakistan. Whereas under Article 25A of the Constitution the state is obligated to provide “free and compulsory” education to all children between “five to 16 years”, there are an estimated 20 million-plus children still out of school. Within these millions there are more girls than boys. This is beyond tragic.

But what is even more tragic is that despite more than five years having elapsed since Article 25A was adopted as a constitutional amendment, there has been almost no progress in addressing these issues. Governments, despite all the rhetoric about education emergencies, have, at best, only taken marginal incremental steps to address the problems of access and poor quality. There have been no commissions set up to look at the sorry state of educational provision in the country and there have been no suo motus.

Our Constitution guarantees equal protection to all citizens. Article 25A falls under the same ambit. Why is it then that we have allowed access to schooling opportunities to vary by income level of parents, geographical location and gender of children? If equal protection is guaranteed by the Constitution we have to make sure that all of our children are treated equally; even ‘separate but equal’ is not acceptable. Here the worlds of children who are born in rich versus poor households, urban versus rural households, one province versus another, and of one gender versus the other are completely different from each other.

Why have we allowed the state to build only one middle school for every four to five primary schools and even fewer high schools, thus ensuring that children drop out? Why have we allowed fewer girls schools to be built than boys schools? Why does the state subsidise Aitchisons in Pakistan when so many children do not have access to a basic school? Why are 100-acre Daanish schools allowed to be built when girls cannot get to schools in many rural areas? Why are laptops being distributed out of funds allocated for education when we could spend the money in recruiting/training science teachers?

The private provision of education has expanded a lot over the last couple of decades. An estimated 35-40pc of enrolled children in Pakistan now attend private schools. The percentage is much higher in some provinces (Punjab) and in urban areas. In cities like Karachi and Lahore, it is estimated that more than 75-80pc of enrolled children attend private schools. Clearly, private schools have expanded access and have improved the quality of provision: people are voting with their feet.

However, equally clearly, private schools will not address the equity issues that have been detailed here (except the gender issue) and they will not allow the state to walk away from its responsibilities. Private schools have to charge for provision and entrepreneurs have to make profits. Providing high quality education is expensive.

Given that poverty levels are high in Pakistan, access to good quality private provision will be closed to children from poorer households, children who live in rural areas and children who are from less developed areas. And these patterns are clear in private school provision: good private schools charge high fees, they are mostly in urban areas and private schools are almost absent from the less developed areas of the country (rural Balochistan).

In fact, though the low-fee private schools might not contribute much to increasing educational and other inequalities, the high-fee ‘elite’ private schools certainly do. They are entrenching the existing economic, social, political, ethnic and geographic divisions in the country even more and making matters a lot worse from an equity perspective. The state is obligated, under the law, to level the playing field for all children but it is not rising to the occasion.

This is not an argument against private schooling. It is an argument against the state seeing the provision of private schooling as a means of abdicating its responsibility to ensure that all children across Pakistan, irrespective of their gender, economic or social status and geographic location, have equal access to quality education.

Will the Saras, Zartashas and Zehras of our country continue to suffer? Will the politicians of the country rise to the occasion and do something more than just make speeches in Oslo and other places? Could the judiciary help speed up the pace of change? Will society be able to organise itself to pressurise the state into living up to its obligations? Despite the rhetoric, the situation seems quite hopeless.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 17th July, 2015


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