What’s Really Keeping Pakistan’s Children Out of School?


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — On a visit to a village school in the mountains near Abbottabad in northwestern Pakistan, I
asked a group of third graders to spell “Pakistan.” They stared at me, silent and bewildered. The school had 20
students; only two have survived till the fifth grade. The two fifth graders were somewhat literate. One of them had
learned to read and write at a private school, but even he struggled to write simple, misspelled sentences.
Less than half of third graders in Pakistan can read a sentence in Urdu or local languages. Thirty-one percent can
write a sentence using the word “school” in Urdu, and 11 percent can do it in English.
Children in government schools report that teachers have them clean, cook, massage their feet and buy them
desserts. Children are categorized as smart or stupid as soon as they start school. Corporal punishment is severe.

Parents will send their kids to a private school if they can afford a few dollars a month, but they do not see
government schools as worth it.
Since 2010, Pakistan has more than doubled what it budgets for education, from $3.5 billion to $8.6 billion a
year. The budget for education now rivals the official $8.7 billion military budget. The teaching force is as big as the
armed forces.
But Pakistan has a learning crisis that afflicts its schoolchildren despite much debate and increase in funding for
education because policy interventions by the government and foreign donors misdiagnosed what is keeping children
out of school.
Although aid programs of the United States and Britain contribute a mere 2 percent of the education budget, those
countries and the local elite, whose own children go to high-end private schools, have emphasized that Pakistanis
demand education and that more children should be enrolled in school.
But the demand for education is already high, evidenced by the mushrooming of low-cost private schools that
now enroll 40 percent of students in the country and charge as little as $2 a month.
Foreign donors also want Pakistanis to send their girls to schools, but a 2014 Pew survey found that 86 percent of
Pakistanis believe that education is equally important for boys and girls, while another 5 percent said it was more
important for girls. Even in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — where Malala Yousafzai is from —
government high schools for girls are enrolled beyond their capacity.
Pakistan’s education crisis is a supply-side problem. Enrollment rates are used as the measure for progress
because Pakistan has the second-largest population of out-of-school children in the world. But the proportion of 5- to
9-year-olds in school is the same as it was in 2010: 57 percent. With teachers chronically absent from school at a rate

of 20 to 30 percent and most of the education budget going into their above-market salaries ($150 to $1,000 a
month), doubling the budget was never the solution to Pakistan’s education crisis.
A vast number of aspirational families in Pakistan invest a large proportion of their income in educating their
children at low-cost private schools. They do not speak English at home but they demand English at school, because it
is the language of the elite and the global marketplace. So Pakistan’s private schools use English textbooks and tests,
even though 94 percent of private-school teachers don’t know English.
A result is that the children are rote learning to get through tests in a language they don’t understand. By the
time these students get to a university, where the medium of instruction is English, they are copying their papers
from the internet without consequence. Plagiarism is not just a norm; it is a necessity.
Instead of English-language schooling, Pakistani schools need to figure out how to teach English as a second
language and allow children to study in languages they know. The government also needs to measure literacy and
numeracy for children in school instead of enrollment. Currently, there are no reliable data sets that can be used for
year-on-year comparisons.
The problem is that donors have created too much noise. Convinced by their own solutions and backed by
foreign expertise and international consensus, foreign donors have run high-profile advocacy campaigns and
monopolized the attention of bureaucrats, party leaders and the version of civil society that Pakistan has developed in
response to them.
Pakistan has made some progress in improving school infrastructure, hired teachers on merit and reduced an old
problem of absentee rates among teachers through monthly checks by school monitors. Officials in Punjab and
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces insist that the ghost schools of the early 2000s are a problem of the past.

But to turn schools into places that provide education will require a local constituency asking the right questions.
The hottest issue regarding education in Pakistan right now is limiting the fees that high-end private schools charge.
If elites mobilized as effectively around issues that affect the majority of Pakistanis, we would see faster and more
meaningful change.
Eighteen million of the 23 million out-of-school children in Pakistan are between 10 and 16 years old. Efforts to
reach them have been negligible. These children opted out of a failing education system and now they have aged.
They will not now go to school if it means starting in kindergarten. They need accelerated programs, or short crash
courses in literacy and math to help them enroll with their age group.
Even if these children do not go back to school — international evidence suggests they won’t — they will, at least,
become literate adults.
Nadia Naviwala, a Wilson Center global fellow, is the author of “Pakistan’s Education Crisis: The Real Story.”
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