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Pakistan - Time to take education seriously

Alarm bells should be ringing:  Pakistan’s educational system is characterized by low literacy and enrollment levels, high dropout rates, poor infrastructure, insufficient training for education professionals, unequal opportunities and low public spending, writes Irfan Mufti.  Primary education has never been a priority for our government.


Amidst claims and galore of achievements, the condition of education in Pakistan is dismal.

Free elementary education is the state’s responsibility, but unfortunately, it has never been a top national priority. It has never received serious attention and adequate resources. Primary schools, where the bulk of children are enrolled, suffer the most neglect in the public sector. Consider these statistics:

  • There are 27 million children in Pakistan between the ages of 5 – 9 who should be in school.

  • But nearly half – 13 million – are not enrolled.

  • Of those who are in school, half will drop out before finishing their primary education.

  • And in rural areas, girls' enrollment lags behind boys by one-third.

The state of early childhood education -- seen as the essential basis for holistic human development – is even worse. Sixty-three percent of pre-primary children, aged 3 – 5, are not attending any form of schooling, according to the 2012 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). Provincial figures are even more alarming: one out of two children is out of school in Punjab and 78% are not in class in Balochistan.

And then there is the state of our primary schools' infrastructure:

  • Two-thirds lack playgrounds.

  • One-third do not have boundary walls.

  • More than one-third lack clean water.

  • Only half have usable toilets.

  • And on average, there are only 2.3 classrooms per school.

Simply put, Pakistan is not on track to achieve the MDGs by 2015. This situation explicitly reflects the state of education in the country.

In Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto, more than half of Grade 5 students are unable to deal with Grade 2 level English and Arithmetic skills.

Our national literacy rate is just 54 percent (66 percent for men and about 42 percent for women) and unofficial estimates suggest that the functional literacy rate is actually much lower.

Breakdown in the Schools

The major problems that confront education in Pakistan are low enrollment and high dropout rates, low female participation at every level, examination based on rote learning, poor physical facilities, a shortage of trained teachers and the absence of creativity in managerial systems.

The quality of our teachers is a major issue and it is eroding school standards. Poor teacher motivation translates into absenteeism, indifferent classroom practices and an exodus from the profession. Yet teachers also receive inadequate salaries, face horrible working conditions, have little opportunity for career advancement and lack a system of accountability.

The abysmal state of our schools is linked to absenteeism by both teachers and students. On average, 13% of teachers and 18% of students are absent on any given day. (This rate rises to 40% in Sindh province!)

Private versus Public Schools

Private schools absorb a large share of schoolchildren. About 26 percent of all school-going children are enrolled in non-state schools in rural Pakistan. Three percent of the total school-attending population attends madrasah schools and one percent attend non-formal institutes.

Private school teachers do not show up to work any more often than their public school colleagues though. And the ASER report confirms that teachers in goverment schools are more qualified than those in private institutions. A higher percentage of government school teachers have post-graduate degrees (34% vs 21%) as well as Masters degrees.

Government Policy

So far, nine educational policies have been announced by governments, though the major portions of the policies are the same. Policy implementation varies in nature and spirit depending on the priority of each successive government.

In 2010, Pakistan's National Assembly passed the 18th amendment to the country's constitution, including Article 25, which enshrines the Right to Education. “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law,” the constitution now states. However, three years later, only Islamabad Capital Territory has in place a free and compulsory education act.

Over the past two years, there have been a few initiatives, some focusing on missing school facilities, others targeting teachers’ professional development or increasing literacy rates. However the scope and scale of these efforts is limited.

Moving Forward

The time has come to urge the public and private education planners, policy makers and investors to look at the bigger picture and develop nuanced strategies that provide an early and solid start to education.

There are several strong civil society networks working on education issues now, including ASER, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, SAFED and SINP (the School Improvement Network) which provide much needed analysis, advocacy and research. Similarly, there are education networks speaking out against injustices and hate material in the education curriculum. With all these little efforts, we hope to highlight Pakistan's lack of progress on the MDGs and push for a strong commitment on the Post 2015 agenda.

It is critical for civil society to mobilise parents, children and every citizen of Pakistan to push the state to deliver. After all, another delay will not only jeopardize the promising start children must get to realise their innate potential, but also deprive Pakistan of a chance to become a peaceful, productive and conscientious nation vis-à-vis social and economic parameters.


Irfan Mufti is the Deputy Director of the South Asia Partnership Pakistan (SAPPK) and GCAP's former Global Campaign Manager. A previous version of this article was published in The News, a nationally-distributed daily newspaper in Pakistan.