The Way Forward in Education


Massive failure

“People are the wealth of nations”- the signature statement of the first Human Development Report (1990), best captures the human development concept introduced by the pioneering Pakistani economist Dr. Mahbub-ul-Haq. Boldly and with irrefutable logic, he called for policies focusing on people, their opportunities and choices and redefined human wellbeing through “the richness of human life, rather than simply the richness of the economy”. Dr. Haq confronted the prevailing economic theorists, exposing the inadequacy of past policies which had failed to lift the vast majority of the world’s population out of poverty, illiteracy, disease, hunger and deprivation.

In the spring of 1963, when Dr. Haq met Amartya Sen, his fellow economist, in Karachi, Pakistan had an envious growth rate of 8.7%. Defined by rapid industrialisation and remarkable investment often recounted as the Golden era of Ayub Khan, it was extolled by Pakistan’s planners as the Economic blueprint for Pakistan’s development progress and prosperity. But the gloss of high growth rates did not deceive the piercing minds of Dr. Haq and Amartya Sen. It was evident that economic growth alone was insufficient to transform lives. That was the beginning of the paradigm shift to redefine development. We now know it as the Human Development Index, the globally accepted instrument to measure improvement in the lives of people.

Dr. Haq died in 1998, the year his Cambridge friend and colleague the Indian economist Amartya Sen won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his contribution to welfare economics. These two powerful South Asian voices – a Pakistani and an Indian – changed the thinking about development and its purpose showing that monetary income per se does not advance human wellbeing. “It follows then that if population is our biggest resource then human development is our greatest responsibility” as stated by Dr. Adil Najam. Both state and society must employ universal and inclusive approaches to address the multi-dimensional nature of human capabilities. A center piece of provisioning for human potential to actualise at individual level is education and its basic component literacy.

Need for perceptive re-thinking

Today in Pakistan our national discourse articulates the foundational formulation that public schooling is the single most powerful agent for transition to mass education. This is embedded in the manifestoes of all the major political parties and it has a political resonance when Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, other political and societal leader call for public sector reform.

A review of Pakistan’s education policies since partition also makes clear the intent on part of all governments to impart literacy and education. However, translating laudable intentions into transformational reality of well-educated and highly skilled cohorts of our children and youth remains elusive. Pakistan’s HDI record remains poor and disturbing. In particular the grim status of our education indicators provokes us with predictable frequency to collect, review, renew our commitment and redefine the way forward.

Periodically, societal and political leaders gather with education experts and practitioners, bureaucrats and development partners, social reformers and thought leaders to take stock and identify markers for the future course of action. Today is once again an opportunity for both reflection and commitment and I am personally honoured to be invited by Federal Minister Shafqat Mahmood to share my thoughts culled from decades of experience in education.

Out of school

I often say that we assemble in hope and aspiration over evidence. Aspiration is reflected in our commitments to Education for All (EFA), Universal Primary Education (UPE), targeting 86% literacy by 2015; Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), 2 and 3 targeted 100% enrolment and primary completion by 2015. Goal 4 of SDGs pushed the targeted to 100% literacy of youth by 2030. Article 25-A of our constitution proclaims the right to education and the state’s obligation to provide it. In Article 37-B, we have pledged to remove illiteracy within minimum possible time.

From Jomtien, 1990, to Dakkar, the UN, and Islamabad——the dictionary is replete with pledges, policies, paradigms but the calculus is gravely deficient. The calculus tells us how far we are from our aspirations and commitments. 22.5 million children are out of school with more girls out of school than boys. 5 million children are of primary age level, 6 million at middle and 11 million at high. Pakistan along with Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Nigeria has the world’s highest out-of-school population.

Dr. Adil Najam and Dr. Faisal Bari, co-authors of the National Human Development Report 2018, project that at the current annual growth rate of net school enrollments, it will take Pakistan till 2076 (that is 57 years from today) to achieve 100% enrollment and primary level completion. To reach the 100% enrollment goal by 2030, a fourfold increase in annual enrollment rates is required.

Are we positioned for this quantum leap? Can the public sector system alone deliver this staggering increase in enrollment?  The public sector together with the non-state sector, in an efficiently managed and accountable devolved district bases arrangement, in partnership with the community and local leadership, with provision for an age appropriate skills and content based program for out of school children and strong pedagogy support to teachers – Pakistan can move the needle – both on enrolments and teaching outcomes. The answers lie closer to the communities and government must negotiate both vertically and laterally to find workable solutions. As Albert Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”.

Focal point

Are we prepared to acknowledge that the problem is much deeper than enrolments and prescriptions of literacy? Evidence shows and the recent ASER report documents that learning outcomes and achievement of students in school are shockingly poor. In math and science, about 60% students of class 5 in public sector schools are at the level of class 2. Wedding the notion of literacy with primary or elementary education can yield results if the complex inputs for quality schooling are ensured. This posits the need to define literacy and school attainment.

UNESCO defines literacy as the ability to read and write with understanding a simple statement related to one’s daily life. It also includes numeracy as basic arithmetic skills. The National Education Policy 2017 defines a literate person as “someone who can read and write a paragraph in any language with understanding and can make simple calculations.”

This basic definition is now weighted with a new understanding of being literate in the context of the 21st century. In an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information rich and fast changing world, our elementary definition of literacy is under challenge. Our schools, both public and private sector are under challenge.


Education rates of failure equate with low economic and social rates of return. The political economy of education needs to place economic value on literacy and political value on equity. We also need to recognise that language in addition to cultural and identity values, has both economic and political value. We can no longer turn a build eye to the literate isolates, and to the determinants of language learning and invitation for proficiency through literacy.

Over the past few months, Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for a common education system that provides quality schooling to all children, and creates cohesion across socio – economy segments, cultural, linguistic regions and acts as an equal opportunity system. This is an enormous and complex challenge which provinces & federal government, public and private sector will need to address. This may be the starting point for identifying practical, realistic reform measures to improve quality and expand access in public sector schools.  Pakistan has high caliber indigenous national expertise that can assist Federal and Provincial Governments in this mission. “Let us light the lamp instead of cursing the darkness” TW

Mohtarma Shahnaz Wazir Ali is a consummate educationist and is President of SZABIST, Pakistan


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