Here are three facts, spot the lie. One, nearly 23 million children between the ages of 5-16 do not go to school in Pakistan which is 45 percent of all children in this age group. Two, Pakistan spends too little money on education. Three, more than half the children enrolled in these schools cannot read a sentence fluently.

The first is of course true according to UNICEF. As Faisal Bari reminds in a recent op-ed, that number is more than the population of Karachi. The third is also astonishingly true. The lie? A recent study authored by Nadia Naviwala (“Why can't Pakistani children read?" published by the Wilson Center's Asia Programme) tells that the education budget has doubled in the past decade. In fact, the gap between the education and the defense budget is slowly closing. According to World Bank estimations, Pakistan spends 13.8 percent of its federal budget on education, against a global average of 14 percent and close to the UNESCO recommendation that countries disburse 15-20 percent of their budget for education. Pakistan also has one of the largest externally-funded education reform programmes in the world.

But that is not the takeaway of the study either. Nadia argues that despite a growing budget, enrollment has not grown too much, especially for children above the age of 10, and of those children that are enrolled, most cannot read. The crisis of in-school children cannot be ignored. Next to 5 million primary aged out of school children, there are 17 million in school who are not learning. These children will not go onto become productive and competitive members of the society.

The study finds that on combined scores for fluency and comprehension, “only 4 to 12 percent of 3rd graders in Pakistan are fluent readers relative to other children in their province, and understand 80 percent of what they are reading. Among 5th graders who are tested on the same 3rd grade level passage, only 18 to 26 percent are fluent readers relative to children in the province and understand 80 percent of what they are reading".

If education is considered the greatest equalizer in the world, it would not be so in Pakistan. Compared to government spending per child, private schools spend less than half and yet private school going children are nearly two grades ahead of those in government schools.

There are multiple problems, which increased spending will not solve. First, though the federal as well as provincial budget for education is nothing to scoff at—provinces are allocating 15-25 percent of it towards education—most of the expenditure goes into salaries. Public school teachers are overpaid compared to market rates—and 85 percent of the current federal budget goes to salaries, and this is similar for provincial budgets. They earn during $200 to $1,000 per month against the salaries in private school ranging from $25 to $50 per month.

Second, despite earning significantly higher salaries, teacher absentee rates are nearly 40 percent in some provinces. Many teachers are protected by powerful men in high places so accountability is simply not there.

Third, enrollment rate may be high in some schools but the same cannot be said about attendance. Corollary to that, the out of school crisis is the crisis of the youth. Children in the ages of 10-16 are already out of their house contributing to the household income. These children need alternative programs which combine literacy and numeracy with vocational skills development.

Fourth and most importantly, there is a growing language problem. Nadia argues: “even though textbooks and testing are done in Urdu, very small numbers of children speak Urdu at home". In Punjab, that's five percent, in KP and Balochistan one percent, and its 2 percent in rural Sindh.

Moreover, government schools in Punjab are now predominantly English medium as English is considered a proxy for quality education. This may be a huge flaw in policy. A British Council survey found that 94 percent of school teachers in private English-medium schools in Punjab don't speak English. Where instruction is not English and textbooks are, the outcome is rote learning where “critical thinking and conceptual understanding are not possible".

Evidently, the roots of the education crisis in Pakistan go deep, at least deeper than the popular discourse on the subject. Some focus must now be lent to children currently in school, the quality of education imparted, the problem that the language barriers present to the larger education system, while also thinking about alternative education programs for those children and youth that are out of school and may be difficult to enroll. One thing is for sure, if money could buy education, we won't have this colossal crisis on our hands.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019