If there is one person who knows education in Pakistan like the back of one’s hand, it is Baela Raza Jamil. Cutting a towering figure, she has been a leading voice calling for educational reforms and has led the movement from the front with various policy suggestions, frameworks and research. Sehrish Khan talks to Baela about many things education and what Pakistan needs to be doing to get its educational act sorted.

Considering your immense exposure to and experience with the education sector in Pakistan, where do you think the fault lines lie? Are we bidding at teaching, have a sub-par curriculum or do we simply do not regard education the way the world does?

Baela Raza Jamil: We are bad at teaching, by and large, and you can read some excellent reports on the subject. Our curriculum is sub-par too, it’s 13 Years old and badly in need of revision, including textbooks, teacher prep and training, pedagogy and assessment system for sure. The problem is seen as that we simply do not regard education as the world does. Education is not a part of any national/provincial agenda – political or economic. If it was, you would not have such a sub-par budget consistently and even more sub-par spending. Even more troubling is the sub-par state of affairs of post primary opportunities and facilities. Our education system is designed for ‘push outs’ and low learning. It is shocking to think that it is not a national priority, despite being a fundamental constitutional right.

At present, around 23 million children are out of school. How do you think this crippling national disease should be approached by the state and the people?

Baela Raza Jamil: This is indeed shameful and needs to be addressed firmly with results in the shortest period of time, I would say 5-7 years as an all-out effort. At Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi, we have some great solutions for OOSC and second chance learning (Chalo Parho Barho/CPB and Siyani Sahelian) that have been tested. CPB has huge potential but the government is not taking this seriously. Files keep moving from table to table as we cannot sort out ‘procurement and PPRA rules”. After all, the OOSC is the government’s responsibility, not its development partners’. 

The uniform curriculum debate concerns only 3-4% of population – the 2% students in Madrassas and just over 1% that use O/A levels/American and IB curriculum – the remaining 96-97% use the National Curriculum 2006. How much more uniform can we get?

For some time now, there has been talk of a uniform curriculum in the entire country. How do you weigh the idea?

Baela Raza Jamil: I am confused and also appalled. It is essentially an issue of 3-4% population of the country – just 2% of students in Madrassas use the Islamic curriculum and just over 1% use the elitist O/A levels/American and IB curriculum – the remaining 96-97% use the National Curriculum 2006. How much more uniform can we get? Having said that, I think the 

  1. The NC 2006 needs to be revised as it has been 13 years since its revision. Unlike Tertiary Education, the basic /school education curriculum is not revised on a rolling basis every 5 years. No one seems to know why. So there is an urgency to revise it for the right reasons and for the 4th industrial revolution, 21st century reasons, AI/etc. 
  2. The challenge is to ensure that the National Curriculum gets to the teachers, headteachers, schools, citizens, assessors, textbook writers and training institutions so that the right pedagogies are transacted and the right assessments are constructed. Our disconnect is with curriculum and textbooks, training pedagogy and assessment. Who will bridge that disconnect? How will the most vulnerable be ensured quality learning? How will those excluded be included in the learning business? These are the billion-dollar questions that need answering. We are not talking about such real issues, only what is essentially politically attractive. Let us get our metrics and basics right. Faisal Bari also wrote about this in Dawn. I am, mercifully, not the lone voice. 
We have also been hearing about going back to teaching in Urdu? What do think will cut the mustard, Urdu or actually devising curriculum based on myriad regional languages that Pakistan is blessed with? 

Baela Raza Jamil: I think the discussion is underway in Punjab because of what was shared with authorities several years back by many of us. We explained that English medium did not make sense when teachers in both public and private sector did not have the skills, besides children losing out on a language of communication. We need clear policies in this regard. In the NEP 2009, the issue of medium of instruction is seen as ‘equity’, with suggestions that early years or up to primary, the medium of instruction should be in mother tongue /Urdu with English added as a subject at some point, then moving on to a mix of language in Post-Secondary with English being used for Science and Math and of course, English. Sindh has Sindhi medium, KP remains confused on language. Teachers are most comfortable with Pashto as the language in classroom, but Urdu as a medium for examinations. Punjab refuses to embrace Punjabi at any level- making its children most unhappy emotionally. This decision has stuck since colonial times – and a language has been rendered an orphan.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has brought some key aspects to light over the years. Do you feel the exceptional work done has led to some real-time efforts on the ground? 

Baela Raza Jamil: ASER Pakistan (2010-2019) is the most benchmarked report on learning in Pakistan. It has brought attention to the centrality of ‘learning’ provincially, nationally and globally. Today education is only related to learning and the World Bank has used two of our metrics on citizen-led assessment in their concept of “Learning Poverty” or the number of 10-year-olds out of school and not learning and those in school and learning. The Punjab Government, and now other provincial governments, are using the instruments of ASER for Learning & Numeracy Drives (LND) on tablets etc. TCF and many other organizations nationwide are using ASER Tool. The low primary indicator on learning (ASER) has become a Tier I indicator for SDG 4.1.1 (having earlier been thrown out by many and downgraded) It is now a rigorous indicator of learning acknowledged by the world, (we have 15 countries using this indicator and methodology) www.palnetwork.orgASER has now got disability tools (hearing/visual). It also does disability prevalence surveys of 5-16 years old (CFM Tool). From what we have found, the government must be hurrying to act, for a large number of children are enrolled in govt/private schools but the government does not know how to prepare teachers for children with disabilities! ASER is now also conducting research on early years too (Feb/March 2020) – it is a great methodology for finding out fast about the learning crisis, and an even faster way to go from Assessment to Action! Having said this, Pakistan has a long way for committing and ensuring that ALL CHILDREN LEARN! Backed by imagination and resources and the will of politicians and the people. 

A key malaise of our education system has been the continually falling pride society associated with teaching and the subsequent diminishing quality of teachers. What has led to all of this? And what is the way ahead?

Baela Raza Jamil: The teaching profession over the decades has been relegated to a second class, or a profession of last resort. We have a ‘When all else fails one becomes a teacher’ attitude. However, it is important to have a course correction in our perception. The profession has been overhauled in a big way in terms of ‘conditions and salary/pay scale’ in the public sector, where 50%-60% of the total teaching force serves (Economic Survey of Pakistan 2018-19). The salary packages have improved rapidly over the past decade and a half. Teaching has become a coveted/sought after profession for 2 reasons:

a) Higher pay and 

b) Lifetime service with little possibility of being chucked out due to non-performance.

Biometrics has also improved absenteeism and attendance accountability of teachers across Pakistan, especially in Sindh. However, what still remains a dream distance is the pride taken in teaching, the passion for delivering and the excellence for transforming the lives of students. Some of this has to do with poor support for in-service training and continuous professional development. In the private sector, the salaries are driven by market rates and also the owners/management, but their accountability and hire/fire authority remain intact, pushing the teachers to deliver (not necessarily with passion). This is the case with most of the private school spectrum – from low/no fee schools to ones charging the highest fee. So, all in all, I do not agree with this perception of “continually falling pride society associates with teaching and the subsequent diminishing quality of teachers”. I think that teaching is a preferred profession for a majority now, but we do need a turn around on the cliché and also a communication strategy to upgrade the profession and showcase better results where ever they may be found due to excellence in profession. This is urgently needed in our society. This is a time of co-creating the curriculum and pedagogy in the 21st century. The possibilities for the profession are immense. 

Higher education in Pakistan has become a lucrative business and higher education become just that, a business. What measures must the state take to make private universities worth their salt?

Baela Raza Jamil: What we need is better regulation with quality assurance that can be implemented in letter and spirit by both HEC (federal and provincial). Lack of regulation and/or excessive meaningless regulations do not produce results. We also need to ensure that students are not being fleeced in a one-sided manner and there is accountability of private institutes as well students’ voice on quality of service. 

Everyone seems to agree with the idea of reviving student unions. Do you think there is a need to frame a regulatory perimeter to not make student unions become yet another pressure group that gets away with all?

Baela Raza Jamil: When there is poor governance, every freedom or fundamental freedom becomes a threat to the state. The challenge is improving overall governance where the state performs its responsibilities and society lends a hand. Currently, when you have events like we have had in universities in Mardan, Punjab, Karachi and many more where the management becomes complicit in politics and gain, unions become a threat. Yes, all unions need a regulatory framework, but more than that, they need substance of objectives and methods to achieve them constructively. Unions mean voice for social improvement, not destruction or negativity.

Our education system is designed for ‘push outs’ and low learning. It is shocking to think that it is not a national priority, despite being a fundamental constitutional right

What is the role of community in ensuring quality of education? Any success stories?

Baela Raza Jamil: There is an immense role the community can play if given the space and voice. Since 1971, the state has remained ambivalent about community being brought back. We have been on a push and pull ride over community engagement, such as through SMCs/PTAs/PTCs etc. In government schools, the community is sometimes asked to be active and other times not to be so. If community is made part of the school and its annual improvement programs, delegated as an important part of the eco system for schools, communities can deliver and there are many success stories everywhere in Pakistan at all levels. But it will only happen when the community is included for school support and school quality. People must not be dismissed as illiterate, poor and ignorant.

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