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  » Education

Education For All

Education in Pakistan

The value of an education is slowly being realised in Pakistan but the road ahead remains long indeed.

27th November 2007 | Stephen McCutcheon

When you hear there are 6 million working children in Pakistan it makes you wonder. When someone tells you that over half the population age 10 and above has never attended school, it really grabs your attention.

Great nations aren't formed by great leaders; they’re formed by great people. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Millennium Goals, education is the right of every man, woman and child.

So why is it, that sixty years on after Pakistan was formed, the rich are still getting richer and the common man is still left asking, "what about me?"

  • Literacy rate - Half the entire country aged ten and above is illiterate (2004). Just over 1 in 3 women is able to sign her name. (2004)
  • Girl Children - 47 percent of all girls never enroll in school. Here, 57 women for every 100 men are illiterate.
  • Working Children - 6.5 million children under 9 years old are out of school; 1 in 10 are working nationally.
  • Dropout rate - a boggling 35 percent of children never even finish Grade 5.
  • Teachers/school - 1 in 5 teachers never show for class. Av. Class size is 37 pupils.
  • Funding - Pakistan has one of lowest ten education budgets in the world.

Take a look under the surface of another Pakistan. One that has the worst child mortality rate in South Asia. One whose population is set to become the 4th highest in the world by 2050 behind India, China and the USA. A country in which 27 million people solve their daily lives below the international poverty line. There’s a human face behind the war on terror, and in a world whose education system is dogged by tradition, political non-commitment and major quality issues, universal education still has a long way to go.

Literacy for All

Out of the country’s 158 million people, 79 million have never attended school, more than half the country. Across the nation, 66% of the population live in rural areas and literacy rates between town1s and cities can vary by up to a third. To be able to read is a rare skill in many parts of a nation where ability ranges from 53% in the Punjab to 36% in the deserts of Balochistan. The common man has few chances to educate his family in this country and the challenge for women is simply terrifying.

Since 1991 the national literacy rate for age 10 and above has surged from 35% to 53% in 2004-5. Primary enrollment is on the up and the concept of girl’s education is now widely accepted - if often unaffordable. Buoyed by progress, Pakistan now predicts an 85% nationwide literacy rate by 2015 and 100% enrollment for every child across the nation. But are these goals achievable?

In 2001, the Pakistan Government drafted the National Education Policy to achieve Universal Primary Education (UPE) by 2015 and make Education for All (EFA) a reality. But rhetoric is one thing and action is another. Pakistan’s political stability is shaky at best and like India, the young nation seems unwilling to invest the funds needed to achieve EFA. Time is running out and for now the question is, can they achieve it in time?

The goal of poverty reduction can be achieved by addressing the root causes of poverty such as lack of education and skills or ill health which will remove existing inequalities of opportunities.
Pakistan MDG Report 2005

Educational options are limited in Pakistan. Compulsory education is only available at primary level from age 5-9 years, and the country is only one of a handful of nations worldwide in which secondary education is not a legal necessity. Unlike China and India, there is no legal right to a free education, meaning parents have few options when their children wish to start school. Only 66% (2004) of all children begin primary school in this country and an abysmal, 21% (2004) begin secondary school. The chance of a child even completing an internationally defined nine years of basic education is a forlorn hope for many.

Whilst primary Enrollment increased from 33% in 1991 to 66% in 2004, the Government estimates that current Enrollment rates will have to double to 10% per year to achieve universal enrollment by 2015. Moving ahead, the Government also plans to educate 81 million adults and eradicate gender equality by the same date. A grand gesture indeed. But where is the money going to come from to solve a gaggle or problems that has been strangling dreams and hopes for the past sixty years. Enrollment in surely one thing, but retention in school is quite another.

Girl Children: Behind the Veil

Picture the tale if you will, of a girl whose only ambition is to grow up to help those around her. Picture her prospects in a rural world of taboo and tradition where women are regarded as property and whose future is decided the moment she is born. According to Amnesty International, over 90% of women think they have no rights at all. It’s a man’s world out there and change is very slow in coming to rural Pakistan.

The United Nations ranks Pakistan, 105 out of 134 in its Human Development Gender Index 2006; the second lowest in South Asia. Honour killings, rape and illegal trafficking of women are prevalent across much of the country. Recent research showed that "women owned less than 3% of plots in sampled villages, despite having the right to inherit land in most." Low literacy and poor health care mean that 1 in 10 children die before the age of five.

Education fares just as badly. Nationwide literacy rates for women over 15 years, stand at 36 percent 1 and are predicted to rise to only 50 percent by 2015 - far off Pakistan’s education target. In the mountainous provinces bordering Afghanistan, the literacy rate can be less than 15%! In rural Balochistan it’s less than 7 percent! The country has already missed the EFA goal of gender equality by 2005. Enrollment is to blame with fewer than 60% of all girls beginning primary school and less than 1 in 5 enrolling in secondary school. For every 100 boys toiling in a classroom, only 73 girls join them and even if a girl makes it into class, she’s likely to be pulled out well before the age of nine.

The biggest barrier to a girl’s education in Pakistan is her lack of access to it. Cultural limitations prevent parents sending their daughters to mixed gender schools restricting access to single sex ‘safe-houses.’ Across the nation, education is built to demand rather than supply, meaning that boy’s schools often out number girl’s, especially in rural areas. For the average girl, school is either too far, too expensive or not safe enough for her parents to allow her to attend - even if she wanted to go. Distance is particularly a problem where parents often fear rape and abduction.

Increased age, brings increased responsibilities around the home, and with the onset of puberty comes purdah and early marriage. With school so far away it becomes difficult for parents to allow their daughter to travel far and even if they are, many dropout early to work at home or get married. In a dogmatic society like rural Pakistan, a girl’s value is seen several paces behind a man, and not beside him. Change will not come with education, but it will begin with it and for that to happen, the Government has to stop dawdling and start acting.

In the face of such adversity, an education gives women strength, resolution and self respect. It gives them the capability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and take advantage when opportunity arises. It leads to:

  • A happier marriage and awareness of her basic human rights
  • Better job prospects and higher wages.
  • Greater well-being and a lower chance of contracting HIV.
  • Enhanced involvement in politics

Leading economists believe that female education may "be the highest return on investment available in developing countries today." Interesting research from the World Bank shows that, for every extra year of education beyond the average level, a woman’s wages rise by 13-18%. The UN tells us, that for every year a woman is educated; the chance of infant mortality reduces by 5-10%. Children of educated mothers study for two hours longer each night, than those of non-educated women. Society may be slow to change, but educating girls is certainly the catalyst to begin it.

...educating girls possibly yields higher rates of return than any other investment available in the developing world." - family wages increase 10 to 20 percent for each year of schooling a girl receives! A more educated mother has fewer and better educated children!" The Social Action Program (SAP) manifesto, Pakistan Government
School's out! For good

Across the country, 6.5 million children are out of school; 4 million of whom are girls and all under nine years old.1 If we include children of secondary age, it could even be 30 million. Once out of school, most will never begin, and the likelihood is that many will be working. A 1996 study by the Government states that 1 in every 10 children under the age of 14 are toiling in Pakistan (over 3.3 million). UNICEF claims the real figure is nearer to 10 million.

Every day, wandering minds drift to school whilst busy hands work the farm or play the loom. Most working children are boys, belonging to poor families living in rural areas, where the average size of the family is greater than eight. Poverty doesn’t offer parents the choice of educating their offspring, when fees are too high or schools too far away. Many see little value in an education system that offers few job opportunities later on and more working hands mean less hungry stomachs. Children may also fail to enroll due to their height. EFA 2005 Report reveals that 40% of all children in South Asia are stunted and much less likely to enroll in school.

Whilst, child labour is illegal under Pakistan law, culprits are rarely caught and the law is basically ignored. The 1996 study showed that 67% of all children worked in agriculture, 11% in manufacturing with the rest in retail and service sectors. Although most children worked on the farm, many more work in carpet factories, stone crushing sites and brick kilns.

It's been estimated that in the Punjab alone, 1 million children toil in its infamous carpet factories, suffering spinal deformities, gnarled hands and physical abuse. Many more are enslaved in the confines of bonded labour, an exclusively cruel practice that bonds a human being to another until a debt has been paid off (often generations later). Illiterate people actually accept their fate because they don’t know any other kind of life exists. Although the Pakistan government is working with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to eradicate the worst forms of child labour from the country, the problem remains severe.

Why do we educate young people?

There are few greater challenges facing world education today, than the cost and quality of that being taught in its schools. When the biggest question, a father, mother or child must ask themselves is, will this school benefit me, you know there’s a problem. Any fool can build a school and canvas the students, but can he add sufficient value to children’s lives once there?

Dropout rate

If it’s 1 out of 2 children that begin school, it’s likely another 1 in 2 drop out before they even complete it in Pakistan. The true scale of the problem is still unknown. UNESCO states that only 70% of students beginning primary school actually complete it and the bad news is, the dropout rate is increasing with no increase in Government spending to arrest it. In secondary school, the likelihood of a child completing nine years of basic education is laughable.

Ask yourself a question. When you were a student, did you study well when the teacher yelled at you? Did you enjoy learning from the teacher who dictated all the time? If you are a parent, would you keep your child in school, if school fees cost more than the next day’s meal? Alternatively, could you afford the transport to send your daughter to a female school 5 kms away?

For Pakistani boys and girls, the main reasons for non-attendance are usually high school fees, distance to school or a learning environment the child doesn’t wish to be a part of. Recent studies showed that boys in rural areas overwhelmingly pulled out of school by their own request, and likely go to work. For girls, it was usually their parents who withdrew them. Both these reasons are exacerbated at secondary level.

Dropout rates for girls are higher than for boys, especially in rural areas. Low priority in female education means that, today there is a nationwide shortage of girl-only schools and female teachers to staff them, particularly at the secondary level. Only 67% of communities have a girl’s primary school nearby and only 22% have a middle school often at distances between 1 and 5 kms. Transportation costs are often too high for parents to afford.

Financial reasons are often given as the main reason for dropping out, whether to go to work or due to school costs such as tuition fees, text books and uniforms. It’s an issue of low quality at high price. Building more schools and lowering school fees is certainly the first step, but it definitely isn’t enough to keep children in school once there. If quality education isn’t present in school, children will continue to dropout.

Government Schools

At the moment Pakistan does not have the infrastructure to educate its population. It’s a case of too many children and too few schools. Shocking data from the recent National Education Census (NEC) 2005, found that 1 in 5 villages had no school at all. Between the plains and mountains, 10 - 20% of pupils must trek from 2-5 kms to reach their class. This issue isn’t helped by the growing threat of 'Ghost Schools.'

The ‘Ghost school’ problem is common throughout South Asia, particularly in rural areas. Teacher absenteeism, low attendance and non-existent funding mean that many perfectly suitable schools have to close and many greedy fat cats continue to claim school subsidies. The NEC places the number of empty schools at 12,737 or 5% of the total number. In some situations, one man’s taxes can mean another child's loss.

What this all boils down to is a severe lack of funding and quality in Pakistan’s schooling system. Parents wish to send their off-spring to school but the value of that taught is often off-putting. Even if children make it to class, the quality of education they receive is often poor and the statistics are startling.

Over a third of all public schools have no boundary wall, no latrine or drinking water facility on site. Almost 74,0000 public schools have no electricity and 9000 have no building whatsoever. In school, students sit on mats, a blackboard can be a luxury and teachers rarely have their own textbook. A teaching kit supplied in the mid-seventies sits in most schools, but is hardly ever used by teachers for fear that they might damage it.

Education is the process in which we discover that learning adds quality to our lives. Learning must be experienced.
William Glasser (1925 -)
A lack of support

It’s not difficult to see why 42% of all primary aged children attend private schools instead of government ones and the numbers enrolling aren’t slowing down. The problem with public schools is that they’re easy to build and not easy to run. Private doesn’t necessarily mean unaffordable (approx. $18 per year), and schools always spring up where the need is greatest.

Private schools often produce better results; offer a better quality learning environment and rare opportunities for girls to enroll as regularly as boys. Teachers in private schools receive around 20% of the pay of government teachers allowing more money to invest in better facilities. Further more, teachers in private schools are employed on a ‘hire and fire’ basis, virtually impossible to do in public institutions.

For the first time, parents can choose where to send their children to school and the Government has taken notice. In its drive to achieve universal primary education by 2015, the Government is going out of its way to attract private investment any way it can. Initiatives now range from tax incentives and donated land to an 'adopt a school' program, where the private sector is invited to run a public school for a certain time.

A lack of coverage by the public sector has also seen an explosive growth in non-formal education across the country. Non formal schools are an open book to all parts of society often ignored by the rest. Schools can be set up in local homes in less than a month and provide opportunities for the very poor, remote and weak. Teachers are often local, curriculums more practical and the community more supportive. For many people, it offers a rare chance to confer knowledge and skills of interest to the learner.

The teacher is considered the most crucial factor in implementing all educational reforms at the grassroots level.
National Education Policy (1998-2010)
Truant Teachers

Of all the schools I encountered in Pakistan, each one had a committed team of teachers and community staff working tirelessly to give their children the best future they could. Hoping this is the reality across Pakistan is a desperate dream, for the country faces a teacher motivation crisis.

A 1997 survey estimated teacher absenteeism at up to 35% in Northern Pakistan, and 22 percent in the Punjab. The situation is particularly bad among female teachers. As the situation fails to improve, Pakistan’s Government has announced that a year on year increase of 3 percent in teacher numbers will be needed to acquire universal primary enrollment by 2015, (an extra 65,000 teachers per year), but as always needs exceed capability.

Pakistan’s teachers are ill-equipped, badly trained and unprepared in a school system with no safety net. The World Bank reports that 58 percent of primary/secondary teachers in country’s Northern Areas lack proper credentials. Classes usually have several grades in the same classroom; few have facilities such as blackboards and books; and most have an average class size of 38 to deal with.

Although female teachers are encouraged in Pakistan, they still form only 35% of the profession. Most of Pakistan’s schools still lie in rural area, with improper facilities and a social stigma against working women. For the few trained female teachers assigned a rural post, most quickly apply to transfer away. Female teachers nearly always face a tougher time than men balancing family life, second jobs, and in rural areas, even death threats from the religious right.

There is no respect like self-respect and the teaching industry lacks this in droves. Around 90% of local education budgets are spent on Government teacher salaries, leaving little money to spend on school infrastructure and extras like text books. Some public teachers take out second jobs to supplement wages and with zero accountability, few inspections and a healthy dose of corruption available, few lose their positions.

Attempting to fill this hole of despair won’t be easy, yet a ray of light in Punjab province may offer some hope. Under the watchful eye of the World Bank, the Punjab Education Sector Reform Program (PESRP) has invested heavily in existing school buildings, given 11 million students free text books, hired 50,000 additional teachers and paid stipends based on attendance to the parents of 300,000 girls.

Although the project only began in 2003, total enrollments are up 20%, the gap between boys and girls attending schools has narrowed and the number of children completing primary school has increased 3%, in just three years.

A well trained and devoted teacher is a greater asset to a rural community than a well built school without one. Whilst it’s highly unlikely that Pakistan will fill its teaching void by 2015, schemes like the PESRP may hold some hope for restoring the pride in a once proud profession.

It is also in the first two or three years of school that children lose the opportunity for learning, if memorization is stressed and children are intimidated by teachers.
Masooma Habib, Pakistan Economic Development Conference, MIT, March 1998
What about the future?

Why must the Pakistan earthquake recovery story be a success? Because the opposite case scenario lies in the country’s current education system. On paper, Pakistan is the king of talk, passing sound judgements on the problems of its people, economy and future development. The big test now lies in putting those words into action - something the Government has a poor record of doing.

Pakistan’s Government estimates that it will cost $7 billion to achieve EFA by 2015, of which $4.3 billion will be petitioned from international donors. The World Bank’s Development Report for 2008 showed that total aid to Pakistan increased from $308 million to $2.2 billion in 2005. Annual GDP growth is the second highest in the world after China and expenditure on education actually increased to almost 3 percent in 2006, though still far off the 6 percent recommended to achieve a solid education reform.

The country may have applied macro reforms to the economy but it needs to focus at the micro level now to move forwards. As 2015 looms, the country faces a huge challenge to find the funds to meet its educational commitments, solve the MDGs and answer the daily needs of it people, not withstanding another major disaster.

The U.N. Development Programme’s 2004 Human Development Report assigns Pakistan the lowest 'education index' of any country outside Africa. Pakistan can no longer continue its ‘wait till tomorrow’ education campaign if it’s serious about meeting its commitments. International donors rarely meet their obligations on time, and in a country where political instability is a cultural necessity, the chances of meeting EFA in full remain slim indeed.

There is no doubt that the future of our State will and must greatly depend on the type of education we give to our children ...
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Founder of Pakistan

In Nepal, I saw all these problems up front when I was an English teacher there. My school had only a few rooms and none of the ’registered’ teachers ever showed up. Some days I even had to run the 100 student school on my own. Each day I looked down at a hundred beaming faces and each day I had to tell half to go home. It’s impossible to teach them all. The most difficult thing for me was seeing one hundred innocents wave away ambition at such a young age. Studies have shown that most parents want to give their children an education but often there is not the means to do so, (i.e. no teacher, no school bus or no school).


I'm setting out to raise a very real £100,000 to help ActionAid Pakistan combat illiteracy in Pakistan. Every day, ActionAid helps run hundreds of tiny schools, trains dozens of community organisations to support the poor across the country and co-ordinates 18 full time ‘development areas’ acting as nationwide models for nationwide development.

Within an often hostile environment of shaky politics and entrenched tradition, ActionAid focus on promoting quality education through enhanced teacher training and child friendly schools. Every day, their work is a constant uphill battle against self-interest and glutinous national education policy. They fight to ensure equal rights for every child in the face of an extremely traditional population.

Your donation will help ActionAid Pakistan to:

  • Build schools and support hundreds of organisations across Pakistan to focus educational support in rural and urban communities dominated by illiteracy and subsequent poverty.
  • Push the Pakistan national Government to make 'free' education a reality, extend secondary education nationally and keep educational reality sharply in focus in the face of tradition and dogma throughout each province.
  • Work with provincial governments to establish child-centred educational programs, allocate funds more effectively and build model schools for others to learn from.
  • Rebuild schools obliterated by the 2005 Earthquake in the North and revitalise shattered lives.
At present the budgetary allocations are not sufficient to successfully implement these projects and accomplish the goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015.
Pakistan MDG Report 2005, p23
Further Action:

People who have an education have the means to mobilise resources, innovate and avoid the traps of extreme poverty. So please use your resources to mobilise now and help in the battle to make poverty history.

Stand Up Against Poverty and join a global campaign to eradicate hunger and want amongst the world’s poor and keep international commitments to Education for All and the Millennium Goals alive.

Final thought:

The world is full of education mishap, but the occasional work of a few organisations and individuals continue to give us hope and help define the road to success. These are only a few of my favourites.


As always there isn’t one agency uniformly trusted to release education statistics. Data here is based on Pakistan Ministry of Education data and data available from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) where unavailable directly from the source. Other data studies thought reasonable to this picture of ‘Pakistani education’ have also been used throughout the text and referenced.

Statistics vary depending upon where one finds them. Development organisations like to show the bad side of education to make more of a case for investment in their projects, whereas Governments like to show the good side to attract international investment and appease electorates. Factors such as the year a figure is published, the time taken to release data and the way it is calculated can also affect it.

The figures given above should only be taken as a guide to education in Pakistan. Even the United Nations often has to estimate figures based on multiple Government reports and studies. Great effort has gone into giving comparable data but as always, read with caution and please remember that whatever the figures, only funding and political determination will bring about change. You can help do both.

What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.

For full references for this article, please see "Full Version" below.

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