Special Coverage
1:40 pm
Tue February 21, 2012

A Disparate Education

KUT News director Emily Donahue traveled through Pakistan with nine other journalists this month on a trip organized by the International Center for Journalists.

Here in Austin, the concerns over adequate and equitable K-12 education are numerous: from education funding cuts under the 82nd legislature; math, science and other curricula; whether charter schools best serve all students in a district; academic testing for state standards; bilingual education. The list of challenges facing educators, legislators, agencies, parents and students is long and complicated. 

And yet, those issues pale in comparison to the education issues facing Pakistan. The issues are so great that most Austinites probably have no frame of reference.

When I arrived in Islamabad I noticed hundreds of children out of school. I wondered why children who appeared to be kindergarten-age were out with their parents at 11 at night. I questioned why kids who looked like they should be in third grade classrooms were sitting on the sides of roads in the middle of the day.

It turns out that educating this country’s children is a major challenge which the government is not meeting. Nearly 40 percent of the population is younger than 15. According to U.S. statistics, about 20 million Pakistani school-age children do not receive a basic education. According to its own government, one in ten of the world’s un-enrolled young children lives in Pakistan.

In a presentation to this group of journalists, Nadeem-ul-Haq, the Deputy Chairman of the Pakistan Planning Commission, pointed out that nearly half of Pakistan’s population is under age 20. Sixty percent are under 30. More than a third of Pakistan’s young people live in cities, and almost that many are uneducated.  In fact, we were told, Pakistan’s education system is among the world’s worst.

Reasons included inadequate funding for public education, decrepit infrastructure, low academic standards, poor teacher training, widespread corruption (one official in Punjab said a significant proportion of education funding is skimmed), poverty, race and gender inequality (fewer than half of Pakistani women have any schooling at all).

The government runs more than 130,000 primary schools and tens-of-thousands more middle and upper schools. Foreign aid, especially from the U.S., has targeted many millions of dollars to teacher and administrator training and infrastructure repair for primary and secondary schools. And yet, these well-trained teachers may not be teaching. As many as 25 percent of government teachers don’t show up on any given day.

Thousands more private schools cater to the country’s wealthier families, with better results than the state schools. But most of the country’s people cannot afford them.

Over and over we were told – in PowerPoint presentations, dinner conversations and newsroom meetings – by government ministers, journalists, business leaders and NGO’s that if the country were better able to educate its population, especially its poor, Pakistan’s poverty and birth rates would fall, its GDP would rise and – perhaps of most import to the U.S. government – distrust of the U.S. and the power of religious extremist propaganda would be diminished.

On our last day in Karachi, we visited a primary school that was not run by the government. It was a newly constructed building, with classrooms on several levels built around an open air courtyard.  It is run by the Citizen’s Foundation of Pakistan, or TCF, a non-profit that according to its website, was “set up in 1995 by a group of citizens concerned with the dismal state of education in Pakistan.”  TCF runs 730 schools (opening 100 more in April) for approximately 100,000 students across the country. The group chooses the sites for its schools in the worst slums, from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the north to Karachi in the south. 

At one Karachi campus, they serve the children of mostly Afghan refugees who reside in and carve a living from a city garbage dump. Some have lived here since the Soviet Afghan war in the 1980’s. They raised families on this dump, living side-by-side with animals and alongside an canal running with sewage.

At this school, ICF teachers inculcate cleanliness along with the three Rs. They teach children how to keep their uniforms clean. They recruit female teachers who travel up to 20 miles to campus so that they can matriculate more girls from often deeply conservative households. Those teachers also hold classes for students' mothers to learn the alphabet, basic addition and how to write their names. It was so empowering, we were told, one mother said that for the first time in her life she would be able to read the signs to take her sick child to the hospital, read directions for prescribed medication, and be able to tally up and sign her name on the bill. This, apparently, is revolutionary.

Life for the children taught here, and their families, is unimaginably hard. We spoke to a man in his early 30s who looked at least 50 as he sifted cardboard gathered at the dump. He purchased the cardboard for 7 rupees (less than 10 cents), sorted and bound it with another man for an hour, and sold it for 8 rupees. (In this video, Madiha Javed Qureshi of Express News in Pakistan translates for KUT’s Emily Donahue.)

One boy we met, 17 years old and in eighth grade, works a factory shift before and after school to help support his sister, six brothers, parents and grandparents who live with him in the slum. He makes 10,000 rupees a month. That’s about $111. And that’s considered to be a good salary.

TCF is run mostly on donations, many of which come from Pakistani expatriates some of whom are living in the U.S. and U.K. Such public-private partnerships, we were told, may be the only way to reach millions of children in Pakistan starved for learning, while the government figures out how to root out corruption and fix the country’s failing education infrastructure.