Is there a magic bullet to improving education outcomes in Pakistan?
It has now been more than 13 years since I officially embarked on my journey, armed with a DPhil. in Economics from Oxford, specialising in education and further specialising in education in Pakistan (and to be even more precise, that in Punjab). I say 13 years but perhaps my journey is even longer – I actually started officially ‘working’ in the education sector when I started my Dphil. studies in 2001 EssayYoda.
Technically speaking, therefore, it has been 18 long years since I have been trying to find out how best to improve education outcomes in the world, and more precisely in Pakistan. The question I am inevitably asked most often at different forums is the following: ‘If you were to do one thing to improve education in any country, what would it be?’.
As anyone working in the education sector in any context will vouch for, this is a million-dollar question which does not have a simple answer. Indeed, it is this desire to find the magic bullet that will eliminate the woes of education sectors that has been the driving force behind many education interventions across developing (and indeed even developed) country contexts.
— Mueez ur Rahman (@mueezkhan123) November 30, 2019
The Nobel prize awarded to the economists’ trio – Esther Duflo, Michael Kremer and Abhijit Banerjee – is testament to the value we now place on finding answers to challenging education questions worldwide, answers that are ‘scalable’ (in that they can be replicated at scale) and are cost-effective (i.e. those that provide the best bang for the buck).
In seeking an answer to this puzzling question, we need to situate it within the global context. In 2015 the world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that set out ambitious goals: end poverty, tackle inequality and combat climate change.
Amongst these, a key educational goal ratified by global leaders called for ‘[ensuring] inclusive and equitable quality education and [promoting] lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (SDG Goal 4). This goal (and several other equally ambitious ones) is set against some stark global realities. Despite expansion of access, some children continue to be denied access to school and, for amongst those who are lucky enough to attend school, large numbers face sub-standard teaching and poorly provisioned classrooms.
As a result, more than half the children and adolescents worldwide (58 percent) are failing to meet the minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics. In this context, it is noticeable that large numbers of children in Pakistan continue to face numerous challenges in accessing education. The various Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) surveys in Pakistan conducted annually by the Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi since 2009 also consistently report striking numbers of out of school children.
Some children are more vulnerable than others – in the South Asia region, these tend to include girls, children with disabilities, living in more remote or rural geographies or those belonging to more disadvantaged backgrounds (lower socio-economic status or from lower castes or religious and ethnic minorities).
ASER Pakistan (2018) findings, for instance, show that more than 16% of the children aged 6-16 years across rural Pakistan are out of school or have dropped out. Amongst these children, almost 11% of those aged 6-10 years have never enrolled in school. The largest number of out of school girls are reportedly in rural Balochistan and newly merged districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where 16.8% and 17.4% of girls aged 6-16 years are out of school.
As anyone working in the education sector in any context will vouch for, this is a million-dollar question which does not have a simple answer
Data also reveal that almost a quarter of all Pakistani children aged 6-16 years reporting some form of disability in Pakistan have either never been enrolled in school or have dropped out. These large inequalities in access especially for the most vulnerable and marginalised children continue to pose huge challenges in Pakistan.
The ultimate responsibility for ensuring that children – from all socio-economic backgrounds, from all religious or ethnic denominations, of all genders and ability groups, whether they are from rural or urban locations etc. – have access to education lies with the government.
However, financially constrained governments faced with ever-increasing school-age populations have faced numerous challenges in achieving these goals and Pakistan’s story is no different to that facing any other developing country with a large population of school-age children. Within this context of constrained government resources, low levels of participation and woefully low learning levels, if there is one thing, we could do to improve education in Pakistan, what could it possibly be?
Read more: Piecing together Pakistan’s education puzzle
In the time I have spent researching education both globally and in Pakistan, the one input that stands out as key to changing education outcomes, however, is the teacher. A teacher forms the single most critical institutional input into a child’s schooling experience. I say institutional because, unlike many things, ensuring the government provides a well-qualified and ‘effective’ teacher is a policy amenable tool.
Therefore, ensuring the provision of effective teachers who can meaningfully engage in a child’s learning process is key to change. However, with this important aspect also comes the recognition that teachers and schools do not exist in isolation of the larger world around them. Many of their actions and the resultant school outcomes that they are inevitably held accountable for are likely to be influenced by a myriad of factors that operate outside the schooling system.
Each of these factors influences different aspects of education reform. They range from policy design to financing to the implementation or evaluation of various reform efforts. Increasingly, the education community is recognising the importance on focusing on the wider political economy context within which teachers operate to identify how to improve the effectiveness of reforms.
If we want to improve education outcomes in Pakistan, our fundamental focus needs to be on improving teacher effectiveness but with the recognition that teachers operate in a system and without the necessary enabling conditions, even the most astounding teacher cannot be expected to achieve the outcomes she is capable of.
Monazza Aslam is an Education Economist. A Rhodes Scholar from Pakistan, Monazza completed her Dphil. from the University of Oxford in 2006 and has since been working in education in Pakistan and other contexts at the University of Oxford. She currently heads an education consultancy firm, OPERA in the UK, which undertakes research on education themes globally.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.