An Educational Chasm

Faisal Bari

I WAS visiting government high schools for girls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for some research work. At each school, I would ask the head teacher if I could have an opportunity to interact with the students of grades 9/10.

At a Peshawar school, I asked Grade 9 students what they wanted to be when they finished their education. Some wanted to be doctors or teachers, a few wanted to be engineers, and one student wanted to be a pilot. The girls had a fair idea of what they would have to do, beyond school education, to get where they wanted to be.

While we were having this conversation, their teacher, a young and fairly recently recruited science graduate, started talking: “All of these girls come from very poor economic and social backgrounds. Many of them are first-time Grade 9 students in their families, their mothers are mostly illiterate, and even the fathers of many are barely literate.” Then she started pointing to some of the girls — “her father is a daily wage earner, her father sells fruit in the local area and her father is unemployed these days”. I had to quickly find a polite and respectful way of stopping her from continuing.

It was clear from the way the teacher referred to the families and the economic and social background of the students that she felt the students came from a much ‘lower’ background than she did.

This experience, of social distance between teachers and students in government schools, was repeated at a number of schools as I travelled across five to six KP districts. A few months later, I had the same experience when I visited a number of government primary and secondary schools for boys in a couple of districts of Punjab.

Teachers and head teachers in government schools generally believe that their schools get the poorest of poor children, that these children come from households where parents are not likely to be very educated or do not have a good understanding or appreciation of the value of education. They feel the parents, as well as the children, have fairly limited ambitions.

Many teachers also said that their own children were not going to government schools and were enrolled in nearby private schools; some teachers openly stated that they did not want their own children to mix with the students enrolled in their schools.

Our data does show that enrolment in the type of school (public/private) and income levels is highly correlated, and among many people from poorer households it is the first generation that is going to school, especially in the case of women.

As the private provision of schooling has expanded, people who can afford it have chosen to send their children to private schools. The trend of withdrawal from public schools by the rich and middle classes continues and is now reaching the rural areas of Punjab, KP and some parts of Sindh as well.

All provincial governments have changed teacher-recruitment policies in recent times. Entry requirements for the teaching profession have been raised to at least Bachelor’s level instead of matriculation or intermediate, teacher salaries have seen significant increases over the last 10 to 15 years, and salary scales have also been revised.

We are getting more educated and trained teachers who are better compensated and have better career paths. All of this is positive. But there are unintended consequences of policy changes as well. As we get more educated people, the latter are more likely to come from the urban rather than the rural areas.

More educated people are also likely to come from households that had a higher income in the last generation than households with lower educational attainments today. Both these factors are likely to further increase the social distance between teachers and students.

The policy of recruiting more educated teachers and compensating them at a higher level is a good one and should not be abandoned. But the issue of social distance should be addressed. The best way to do this is through changing the content and style of pre-service and in-service teacher training.

The former refers to the Bachelor’s or Master’s level degrees — B. Ed./M. Ed. Courses relating to these degrees should have a lot more content on managing issues like social distance, the needs of children from different backgrounds and students with a diversity of abilities and potential. There should also be courses on pedagogy techniques that should be employed to manage diverse classrooms. These courses will provide teachers who are training some tools to help them relate better to students hailing from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

In-service training, provided by government teachers training departments in all provinces in the form of induction training (at the start of one’s career) and continuous professional development (throughout one’s teaching career), can further consolidate the introduction and ensure we have a way of imparting modern techniques to teachers for the management of diverse classrooms throughout their careers.

Improving the quality of education for our children will require us to get more educated and better trained teachers, to compensate them at higher levels, incentivise and motivate them, and help them manage their careers well. But this can, at the same time, result in an increase in the socioeconomic and cultural distance between teachers and students in public-sector schools, especially in the rural areas.

We have to address this issue as it can undermine, significantly, our ability to reach out to and retain children from diverse backgrounds, especially those from challenging backgrounds or those facing physical, mental or learning problems. While continuing to improve the condition of teachers, the problem of social distance and its consequences should be handled through better pre-service and in-service training.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 30th June, 2017.

Is Cheating A Norm Now?

Faisal Bari

A STUDENT cheated on an examination in a colleague’s course. He was caught and his case was referred to the relevant committees for investigation and action. The family of the student started pestering the teacher of the course. Since I was head of the department, I told my colleague to ask the family to come to me if they had any issues with procedures.

The mother of the student came to meet me. She started off by saying that the student did not know what he was doing. I told her that our university made sure that all incoming students are told that we have zero tolerance for cheating and that all incoming students are given written and verbal warnings about this.

She then said that she had lost her husband very early and had been solely responsible for bringing up the young man and this charge would have a significant impact on the student’s career trajectory. I told her that since the matter was with the relevant committees, the student would have to make his case there for mitigating circumstances and/or leniency.

Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres are not going to work.

The mother then went on to tell me that one of the student’s maternal uncle was a senior DMG officer while his paternal uncle was a senior army officer and if I did not help the student, it would have consequences for me. I told her that I would ignore the last bit of what she had said and that she should leave before things got more serious. As she was leaving she said: “Cheating is normal in Pakistan. Don’t you live in Pakistan?”

It does seem that there is a lot more acceptance of cheating in the education system today than was the case a couple of decades ago. All high-stakes examinations have a high incidence of cheating. Matriculation and intermediate examinations have become quite notorious for this. But even grade 5 and grade 8 examinations that Punjab takes are known to have a lot of cheating.

This year, the issue was highlighted in Sindh where the chief minister wanted the department of education to reduce or eliminate cheating. In the end, it seemed the department was pretty helpless in the face of the strong ‘mafias’ that have been formed to facilitate cheating.

Whenever examinations are a high-stakes affair where a lot depends on its outcome, the motivation to use all means, fair or unfair, increases. Matriculation and intermediate examinations shape the career and future of students ie they determine where students can get admission and which professions they can enter. It is no wonder students want to do well in these examinations.

In Punjab, the results for grade 5 and grade 8 examinations are used to grade teachers and schools. Not surprisingly, in many instances of cheating, it is the teachers and school administrations that are themselves involved in facilitating cheating.

If we want to challenge the norm, major changes will be needed. Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres and random but very public raids alone are not going to work.

Our examination systems need to change. Instead of relying on exanimations conducted annually or at the end of the respective course, we will need to move to more frequent and formative assessments. These are not easy to conduct when a large number of students are involved, but for better assessments, lowering the stakes attached to a single examination and for getting better measures of student learning, the move to formative and more frequent assessments is very important.

We will need to change the nature of examinations as well. Instead of relying on asking questions that test memory and/or are sourced from a particular textbook, we need to move to questions that force students to think, argue, articulate and exhibit their critical thinking skills. We need to move to examinations that are curriculum- and not textbook-based. Several examinations that I sat for in my academic career allowed us to bring any number of books and other material with us. Such examinations are more difficult to set, but they do test student abilities better.

An examination question from a philosophy paper that I fondly remember was: “The trunk of an elephant looks like a snake. Discuss”. Such a question can be answered, legitimately, from a number of perspectives: perception, language, mind, reality/appearance, and biology. What is at stake is the quality of the argument that the candidate makes, and rote learning is of little help here.

We do need to make sure that the conduct of examinations makes cheating as difficult as practically possible. Random checks by third parties are a must. Teachers should not be the invigilators of their own students. Students who are caught cheating must be punished sufficiently to have some deterrent effect on others.

But all this will not be enough. We have to work on the values in our society as well. Our moral values and norms as a society have weakened over the last three to four decades. In some ways, this is a necessary counterpart to change in societies. We have, as a society, not tried to manage change and understand what it means for our values. How we have an impact here is a longer topic and we will come back to it another day.

Cheating might not be a ‘norm’ in our society yet, but it is close to being one. To challenge it and change the current equilibrium is not an easy task. A multipronged strategy is needed that looks not only at how we set exam papers, what we examine and how we conduct examinations, but also at societal values that are in the process of making cheating normal. One measure is hard enough to implement; to do it all at once seems well nigh impossible for us right now.

From the Dawn, Karachi, published June 2nd, 2017.

Rethinking Zoos


SUZI, the lone elephant in the Lahore Zoo died last week. She lived for only 30-odd years. Even if they have lived in captivity, elephants are expected to have a lifespan of about 50 years. Suzi died early.

For the last two and a half decades, Suzi was the star attraction at the Lahore Zoo. Children love elephants. Even adults do. And by the scores that would throng to see Suzi, it was clear she had a lot of admirers. But Suzi was alone. She had been the only elephant in the Lahore Zoo for the last 25 years or so. Without any other elephants to interact with, could she have been happy? Could her life have been better if she had had someone to live these years with? Or is human admiration and interaction enough for animals to have a good life while being in captivity?

The Islamabad Zoo had two elephants sometime ago. Then one of them died. The behaviour of the other changed significantly after the death of his partner. Zoo officials responded by chaining the surviving male elephant. It took a lot of effort on the part of activists and concerned citizens to secure more humane treatment for him. Companionship and interaction with one’s kind matter for most living things. After Suzi’s death, one of the Lahore Zoo administrators said that they would, from now on, only obtain elephants in pairs.

It is not just about elephants, of course. There have been many instances of deaths in our zoos, across Pakistan, where animals have died due to neglect, cruelty, poor treatment or just poor care. The care that we provide in our zoos leaves a lot of to be desired. Do animals get proper sized cages/spaces, is their food nutritious, and are their medical needs taken care of? For those animals that need it, are proper temperature controls available? Knowing all the problems public-sector departments have, it would be a miracle if zoos had proper services for the care of their inmates. We know how our public-sector educational and health institutions meant for Pakistan’s people are performing. Would our zoos be any different?

Immanuel Kant said: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If humans are judged by this standard, given the way most of us treat animals in our zoos, around us and in our homes, we fall short.

Why do we need to cage animals and put them in zoos? I understand that people, especially children, derive some pleasure from watching animals, but is that sufficient reason for taking away the freedom of a living being? Would these animals not be happier in their natural habitat? There is plenty of evidence that shows animals do not like to live in captivity. So, why have zoos?

It is not the case that our zoos are research institutions where we conduct any work on understanding these animals and their lives so as to improve the lives of other beasts. Some people argue that zoos are safe environments for many of these animals and they would not survive if they had to live in their natural habitats. This too is a very tenuous argument. Clearly, zoos have not been made for the benefit of giving animals a safer environment: all zoos together have a minuscule proportion of animals of the total that exists. Zoos are also not for endangered species only. Most of the zoos in Pakistan, in fact, do not have any endangered species.

Even if we want to provide safer and more controlled environments for animals to survive and thrive in, cages seem to be a bad idea for doing that. We need to create more protected nature reserves, safari parks and so on. We need to protect our jungles and the environment in general so that animals can survive the human onslaught on nature. We need to create spaces that are for the benefit of animals. Zoos seem to be places that have been created for human pleasure and satisfaction and most of them have not been designed to be optimal environments for the animals we confine in them.

I have not invoked the issue of animal rights at all so far and have, purposefully, talked only of what is good for animals. But, the issue of rights is a serious one. Do we think animals have direct or derivative rights? If they do, and irrespective of whether these rights are direct or derivative, surely having the right not to be caged would be a part of any bill of rights. Clearly, humans should not be able to confine and cage animals just for their voyeuristic pleasure.

Most of the zoos that we have today were made a long time ago. Thinking, as to why we need zoos or why they might be good to have, dates back from that time too. But our thinking about how we can learn more about animals, about what is good for them and about animal rights has evolved a lot over the intervening period. We should have a dialogue on the need for having zoos again in our society.

Do we need zoos? If we do, what sort of zoos should we have? Are cages in the middle of the city, as is the case in Lahore, the right way to have a zoo or should we be thinking about nature reserves and safari parks? Just because we have zoos already is no reason to continue with them as they are. Suzi’s death, I hope, will trigger some debate on the issue in public as well as amongst policymakers. It should definitely happen before we get another elephant or a pair of elephants.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 19th May, 2017.

Can Education For All Work?


ARTICLE 25-A in our Constitution makes education a basic right for all five- to 16-year-old children. For the last many years, governments have been trying to get all children in this age bracket into schools but have not been successful as yet. In fact, though the article talks about all five- to 16-year-old children, most of the focus of governments has been on getting primary education universalised — and we have not even been successful in that as yet.

Punjab claims that the ‘participation’ rate has gone up to 90 per cent at the primary level. But it is not clear as to what is meant by the ‘participation’ rate, how this is linked to gross and net enrolment rates and what this means in terms of primary-level completion rates. The claims about enrolments, from other provinces, are lower than those for Punjab, so the problem is bigger in other provinces.

It is often argued, in education policy circles, that getting all children into schools is the first priority and once that is done, we can worry about the quality of education and other related issues. And, broadly speaking, this is indeed the policy that the provincial and federal governments have been following. But, there are a number of problems with this perspective.

The quality of education and our ability to get children into schools and, more importantly, to keep them there, are integrally linked. If children do not get a decent quality of education that can hold their interest and harness their ability to read/write, comprehend educational material, engage with the society they live in and provide options for career paths, it would be hard to keep them in schools. It would also be hard, in such circumstances, to try and convince parents and children for the latter to come to or stay in schools. Why should they? Why should a parent spend time and money to keep his or her offspring in school when the child is getting little or nothing out of it? Do we feel there is zero opportunity cost for children’s time?

Not only are we not able to cater to all children through schools (government estimates say some 22 million children from five to 16 years are out of school) we are not even able to impart quality education to the ones who go to school. How are we going to deal with the situation if, by a miracle, all children in this age bracket did end up in schools?

There is plenty of evidence that public-sector schools across the country, by and large, provide poor education. Most of the examinations conducted in the country, irrespective of their level, show poor results. The Punjab Examination Commission results for class 5 show that a significant proportion of students have not even gotten the hang of basic reading, writing, comprehension and mathematics.

Matriculation results show that a significant proportion of students fail the examination, even though it is a fairly simple one for that level, and that the pass percentage is only 33pc. A large proportion of those who pass are still unable to get admission into colleges. The same pattern can be seen at the intermediate level.

The case for education in the private sector is not very different. Barring the ‘elite’ private-education sector, which caters to less than 5pc of enrolled children in the country and charges tuition fees that only the middle- and upper-income groups can pay, most of the private education sector that is popularly known as the low-fee private sector also provides quality that is generally poor.

The examination results that we mentioned here show the poor performance of the low-fee private sector as well. A recent study that we conducted found that the returns of high-fee elite education package (better quality education, exposure to ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level examinations, and facility with English language) explain a lot of the differences in a) what sort of colleges students can enrol in, b) what sort of careers people can choose, and c) the salaries they get.

Given all this, should we still focus on enrolment first as a policy? Are we doing our children a favour by putting them in schools when we are not able to provide even a basic and functional level of educational quality through most of the schools that we have? Should we focus on bringing in reforms that target the quality of education as well?

Some might want to argue that we should be doing both ie getting every child in school and ensuring that they get a decent quality of education. This is a very sensible position to take and a lot of countries, both developed and developing, do focus on both issues simultaneously, but they spend a lot more resources, human and financial, on their education sectors. When the current government spends less than 2pc of GDP on education, how can we achieve universal education of even a minimum quality?

So, should we leave out-of-school children as they are and focus on quality-enhancing interventions only? This is the choice that society should be thinking about.

I might have my preferences on what policies should be adopted but in a democratic society decisions should be taken after an informed debate. The purpose of this article was to raise the issue of the choices before us. What we decide to do, as a society, is something that should be debated.

Whether we keep the focus on enrolment, move to focus on quality, or increase funds for the education sector substantially to be able to do both, should be a thought-out choice and not just a default position. Our collective choice will have significant consequences for our children and the future of this country.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 5th May, 2017

Where We Stand


MASHAL Khan was murdered by a mob. The students were worked up into a frenzy, with the knowledge that they will harm Mashal, and then they were led to him and they killed him. The issue used to work students up was an alleged instance of blasphemy.

Blasphemy charges have been similarly misused before this incident too. But this was a particularly blatant and odious use of an emotive issue to settle scores and to get rid of a young person — all because, it seems, Mashal was asking awkward questions of the university administration.

The blasphemy law, religiously and legally right or not, has been misused many times now. The law needs to be changed. Even the unanimous resolution passed by the National Assembly has said that safeguards against the misuse of the law need to be built into the law itself. But that is another debate.

Mughees Butt (17) and Muneeb Butt (15) did not commit blasphemy. They were, falsely, accused of being robbers and then they too, in a very heinous, cruel and public way, were killed by a crowd in Sialkot in 2010.

In Mashal’s case, the size of the mob was too large for the police to control, while in the Mughees/Muneeb case, the police were present but chose to do nothing. In fact, in the latter instance, some of the policemen present joined the public in encouraging people to torture the two children.

The videos of both incidents are heartbreaking to watch. The sense of revulsion and sadness that one feels when watching human beings acting worse than depraved animals, is almost overwhelming. How can humans do this? How can our countrymen do this? Do these people not have to wake up the next day and live with their memories? What sort of moral/value structure allows a person to throw a stone with the intention of killing or injuring another? Which values give one the power to use sticks for breaking another person’s bones?

Clearly, it is not just religious issues that have led mobs to cruelty and to taking the law into their own hands. Mughees and Muneeb were not accused of blasphemy. A lot of violent protests, due to load-shedding, etc have nothing to do with religion either — though invoking a religious issue seems to be one of the easiest ways of working people into a frenzy, the recent case of violence at the University of Punjab being a good example.

It is not just the spontaneous reaction of crowds that we are dealing with. The creation and unleashing of mobs has been used in a premeditated manner as well. Those who wanted to target Mashal knew they were going to use a crowd. They ensured that instigators were around at the time. In the past, mosque loudspeakers have also been used to target individuals and communities. These come under premeditated action and are not just the spontaneous behaviour of a mob.

In some cases, the premeditation is not just about creating the frenzy and hoping that the crowd will then turn violent; it is, plain and simple, premeditated murder. Most recently, three women killed a person who was accused of blasphemy in 2004. These women waited 13 years for the person to return to Pakistan before they went to his house and shot him dead.

The ease with which situations escalate to violence in Pakistan should be a cause of deep concern for us. A road accident leads to a scuffle far too easily and we have seen plenty of them. People standing in a line to pay a bill: an altercation breaks out between a few people over who has bypassed another or not. Disagreements that could best be resolved through conversation, or at worst through recourse to law, degenerate into physical fights that, more often than not, turn deadly.

The key here seems to be that we, individually and collectively, do not feel that institutional responses can get us an adequate hearing. Only individual and personal responses can work. The threat of violence and actual violence is the strongest form of individual response. If a person has committed blasphemy, we feel the law may or may not punish the person, so we have to respond individually. When these individual actions get coordinated in a crowd, a mob results. But the response is still individual and individuated.

A road accident happens. We do not believe that the law will be able to help us. The stronger side feels that resorting to violence gives them a better way of dealing with the issue — even though, clearly, violence is not the route to justice and/or restitution! The response is individual.

If our institutional structures were stronger and were capable of delivering justice and fair outcomes, and here we are talking not only of the judiciary but of all institutions, especially those pertaining to law and order, would we have the same level of violence in society? Would disputes as easily or as frequently descend to violence and the need to take individual action?

But our institutions are weak and often ineffective. The dominant narrative of Pakistan is power. Violence is the most naked and destructive form of the exhibition of this narrative. Whether it is the state that makes people ‘disappear’, FIA officials beating passengers or individuals/crowds taking the law into their own hands, it is all about power and not about institutions and rules.

We should definitely change laws that are wrong and build safeguards against the misuse of laws. We should also change our education curriculum to bring in tolerance and do a lot of things that people are talking about right now. But the deeper work needs to be done at the level of institutional reform: building trust in institutions that deliver on fairness and justice might be the only way forward for us.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Saturday 22nd April, 2017

In Service of Power


TWO years ago, a friend and colleague, teaching at a US university, wrote to me asking if one of her doctoral students working on education issues in developing contexts could work on Pakistan and if I would be willing to guide her in her fieldwork. I thought that having a doctoral student look at leadership issues across gender would be good since there was little local research on this. So I said I would support the student.

The student decided to come to Pakistan. She asked me for a letter of support so she could apply for her visa. She submitted her visa application about four months prior to when she wanted to be in Pakistan.

One day I got a call from someone who said he worked for an ‘agency’ and wanted to come to interview me about some American ‘girl’ who had applied for a visa and who had a letter of support from me. I asked him to come by. Our conversation is worth reproducing.

After asking me about what I did, where I taught, what I taught, and if I had any suggestions about how to improve the economy, the gentleman came to the point. He asked me how well I knew the ‘Amreeki girl’. I gave him the context. He asked if she was connected to the CIA. “Not to the best of my knowledge,” I said. He asked me if I could vouch for her ‘good character’. I told him that I had no idea of what he meant by ‘good character’ but I had no reason to believe that the student had any character flaws that precluded her from doing doctoral work in education. He asked me as to why I was interested in getting the student here. “It is a good idea for advanced students to do research on and in Pakistan.” He did not seem convinced by my answer.

He wanted to know all the places the student would visit. I told him that I knew the districts and the schools she had in her sample and could share the list. But the gentleman wanted to know about all the places the student would visit in the evenings. I said I had no idea about that.

He asked me if I would ‘guarantee’ the safety of the student. I mentioned all the arrangements we were making for her accommodation, transport, help with logistics, and hiring of interpreter/research assistants. “This is all fine but do you guarantee her safety?” By this time I was a bit annoyed. So I said that when I cannot guarantee my own safety and you guys cannot guarantee the safety of citizens of the country, how can you ask me to ‘guarantee’ the safety of another? Again, the answer did not convince him.

He then asked me to provide documents about myself, the organisation I worked for, the kind of research we did, the partners we worked with and even copies of research papers we had written. And then, the final straw, he asked me where I lived and told me that he would come around and interview my father. I had had it by then. I told the gentleman to leave, to give whatever report he wanted to give about the issue but he would not be entertained at my home. He left.

The student did not receive any answer to her visa application for a long time and getting the not-too-subtle hint, decided to work on another country. She is now finishing her thesis write-up.

We have had an unknown number of CIA officials working in Pakistan and we have had, allegedly, Indian nationals working in sugar mills in the country. We had entire air bases given to Americans, had drones flying from there and, apparently, even had a programme where US citizens could come into Pakistan without clearances from Pakistani authorities. But when we want to have an academic come over for a conference or have a colleague come over for joint work, the hurdles in the name of national security are insurmountable.

Even doing research on our own is not easy. I work in education. Every time we have to do household surveys and/or school surveys, we have to get an umpteen number of letters of support and/or no-objection certificates (NOCs). If we want to do positional tagging, so that we can identify and revisit households or schools later, it opens up another Pandora’s box of NOC requirements. If I am going to state schools, it makes sense for me to have permission from the education department, but if I am going into households, I should only be required to have permission of the households in question. Why do I need the state’s permission to visit a citizen at her house? But we do: logic is not one of the strong points of a lot of these requirements.

The issue here, clearly, is power. Rules are made not to serve the larger interest; they are made to serve the powerful and strengthen their hold even further. Were agencies incompetent to the extent that they did not know CIA operatives were coming into Pakistan and some might still be here? I hope that is not the case. They knew. It was just that power interests were such that they wanted to allow these people to come into the country.

“Squeezed elbow room and shrinking leg space is the narrative of Pakistan in our times,” writes Harris Khalique in his new book Crimson Papers. He goes on to say: “It is about demanding a dignified physical space to live, a respectable economic space to earn a decent living, a free intellectual space to think, and an uninhibited artistic space to create. Together, it is all about political space.” So the question really is: can we imagine a different future?

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday April 7th, 2017