Educating All in Pakistan

A version of this op-ed originally appeared in the Pakistan daily The News.

Roughly a quarter of all children in Pakistan do not attend school. This includes children who have never been to school, as well as those who have dropped out at various stages before finishing high school. Pakistan still does not have universal enrollment for 5–16 year olds, and dropout rates are very high for all grade levels. There are gender and geographic dimensions as well: more girls are out of school than boys, and many more rural than urban children are out of school.

However a new article in the Pakistan Constitution reads:

25A. Right to Education: The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the ages of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.

In accordance with this article, whoever stands in the way of the education of children will considered to be interfering with the basic rights of the citizens of Pakistan. Citizens can now invoke the courts to have their rights ensured.

But now comes the harder part. For the 15 to 17 million children who are out of school, or who dropped out of school for one reason or another, will this pledge translate into anything more than a pledge? Will the government actually make the requisite efforts to get these children into decent schools? If the pledge is a serious one, and if the framers of this amendment and those who endorsed it were serious about their intentions, they need to show that they are going to make a real effort at its implementation as well.

Given the magnitude of the task, a realistic and well-thought-through plan of action to address the issue will be required. The provincial governments need to immediately set up permanent commissions, committees, and bodies to start working on this issue. They have to figure out how much resources are needed, where they will come from, where we need more schools, and how many, what sort of cooperation is needed from the private sector, how many teachers are needed, how and where we can train them and what the time frame for the implementation of the new article is going to be.

If we do not see any immediate moves from the provincial governments to start research and analysis on these questions and to seriously start looking for the resources needed, we will know that this amendment was the usual stuff that we have come to expect from the policymakers, politicians, bureaucrats, and the ruling elites.

Now that Pakistan has conferred the right to education on all children and has even committed to raising educational finance to seven percent of the GDP over the next few years, how do we make sure that society as a whole and the government in particular are made to deliver on the promises that have been made? And if the government does not move in the right direction quickly, what should be the appropriate strategy?

Citizens, especially those who are concerned about issues related to education and who feel that educating our children is important for the future of the country, have to ensure that they support all efforts to make certain that the dream is actually achieved in the shortest possible time.

If the government honors its pledge, we have to work with it to make possible that quality education is provided to all children irrespective of their background or any other characteristic. The recent amendment is an encouraging milestone and should provide some impetus. But if the government acts lazily or is not sincere, we have to make sure that it is pushed in the right direction.

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