Salvaging education in Sindh

A chronically ailing education sector in Sindh has prompted a belated emergency by the incumbent chief minister. Before enduring this inexorable rot during the recent decades, Sindh was the torch-bearer of education in the country. Decay of education indicators in Sindh coincided with an overall failure of education sector in the country.

Although no province has shown enviable performance in the education sector, the pace and magnitude of decline is mind-boggling in Sindh.

It is widely believed that education in Sindh was subjected to a systematic degeneration since the Zia-regime. Following the footprints of the martial law regime, successive governments converted education department into a graveyard of talent by wholesale recruitment of incompetent teachers and officers.

Being the largest source of public sector employment, the department became a perennial stream to quench the thirst of nepotism and corruption of every government. Competent and dedicated teaching and non-teaching staff was gradually replaced by flocks of meritless personnel, resulting in a nosedive of education standards and key performance indicators. A pernicious corrosion of education over the years eventually became too conspicuous to ignore.

More recently, a series of reports issued by independent think-tanks and research bodies have referred to a distressing state of education in the province.

A recent study by Bengali and Durrani (2014) states that there were over 13 million eligible children (age group 5-15) in Sindh out of which around 4 million (30 per cent) are in the public education system, about 2.5 million (19 per cent) are in private schools and the rest (51 per cent) are out of school. The public sector enrollment dropped from 4.4 million in 2010-11 to 4.2 million in 2012-13. According to UNESCO, 2.8 million children (5-9 years) in Sindh are out of school. Nearly 38 per cent of those who get enrolled in schools do not continue education beyond grade 6 and those who are lucky enough to stay in schools do not perform well enough to show optimal learning outcome. This leads to a low literacy rate and eventually an inferior quality human resource in the province.
A district education ranking conducted by Alif Ailaan in 2014 depicts a dismal situation of education in Sindh. The report notes that of the total 12 million children between the age of 5 and 16 years, more than half i.e. 6.1 million are out of school in Sindh. These include 3.5 million (i.e. 56 per cent) girls. The report reveals that Sindh’s children score poorly in reading and mathematics compared to rest of the country. 59 per cent students in grade-5 couldn’t fluently read Sindhi or Urdu, 75 per cent couldn’t read a sentence in English fluently and 71 per cent couldn’t do simple two digits division.

According to overall district ranking, no district from Sindh found place in top 50 districts of the country, whereas Balochistan had three districts in the list. In the ranking of primary schools, Karachi was the only district of Sindh that appears among the top 50 districts, whereas Balochistan had three districts in the list. Likewise in the middle schools ranking, Hyderabad was the only district of Sindh among the top 50, compared to four districts of Balochistan.

Similarly, Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)-2013 made startling revelations on plummeting quality of education in Sindh. On certain accounts, even FATA outshined rural Sindh. According to the report 67 per cent of grade-3 children could not read sentences in Urdu/Sindhi compared to 64 per cent in FATA who could not read sentences in Urdu/Pashto. Similarly, 43 per cent of grade-1 children could not read letters in Urdu/Sindhi as compared to much lesser 23 per cent in FATA. In mathematics, only 29 per cent children enrolled in grade 5 in rural Sindh could perform two digit division compared to 37 per cent in FATA.

The situation exacerbated in 2016 when under the ranking on primary education, the first district of Sindh Karachi appeared on the 43rd rung outperformed even by Layyah district of south Punjab which has otherwise very low human development indicators.

All these figures are only a tip of the iceberg. Having five to seven thousand ghost schools and countless absentee teachers is a unique ignominy earned by the province. A former provincial minister of education belonging to the ruling party has been accused of a record breaking 23,000 irregular appointments in the department dwarfing all past records of corruption. The party leadership never expressed any remorse on this faux pas of its senior minister. This pitiable state of education in Sindh has surfaced in tandem with a pronounced comprehensive governance failure in the province. Pervasive corruption and nepotism in the province became a breeding ground for all ills in the education department.

Against this backdrop, declaring an education-emergency is a cogent initiative if it is not a perfunctory announcement for media consumption only. The announcement ensued by administrative restructuring of the department. Education emergency, however, entails a broader spectrum of actions leading towards a comprehensive makeover of the system. Saving it from becoming an optical illusion, the emergency should unfurl a clear strategic direction and a set of integrated targets to bring a radical shift in the overall governance of the department. A strong and sincere but disjointed and impulsive administrative action will bring little change.

A fundamental shift is required in the practices in vogue. While an administrative overhaul, new infrastructure, database, free books and scholarships are of immense significance, the teacher is the lynchpin of the education system. A merit-based and transparent recruitment of teachers would help reversing the rot. Distributing teachers’ jobs as bribery to political loyalists had been the root cause of the damage.

In the old good days, a competent and responsible teacher was the cornerstone of a performing education system. Schools deprived of basic infrastructure and modern-day facilities produced legions of best brains mainly because of zealous teachers. Teachers’ recruitment has remained a lucrative trade for political leadership, bureaucrats and their cronies in Sindh. No emergency will bring fruition until teachers’ recruitment process is liberated from clutches of the influential people within and outside the government.

Next, even if all teachers are miraculously recruited on merit, the quality of more than 145,000 existing school teachers will remain a riddle to resolve. It will be a Herculean task to enhance capacity of all these teachers. The department should contemplate a 5-7 years plan to work synchronously on capacity enhancement of the existing teaching staff. It is easy said than done but emergency is all about conquering unchartered territories.

Teachers’ training of this scale will require a meticulous planning, injection of resources and well-defined outcomes. The third cardinal element is presence of the teachers in classrooms. Some recently taken measures have yielded some results and the teachers’ absenteeism is being checked. Consistent technological surveillance and community mobilisatoin can bring teachers to their schools.

The education department itself requires a purge of unscrupulous elements. Unfettered corruption has become a norm in the department that guzzles more than 20 per cent of the annual budget of the province. The department’s bureaucracy in cahoots with the treasury has invented marvels of innovation to siphon off large sums of money. They have perfected the art of tempering with documents to devour money without leaving a paper trail. Nevertheless, employing technology and strict monitoring can reduce rampant corruption in the department.

More than six millions out-of-school children (compared to currently enrolled four million) and minimising their dropout is a strenuous challenge. Deficit of public sector facilities is being exploited by an under-regulated money-minting private school system. A major reason of this colossal number of out-of-school children is lack of access to affordable education. The problem is even graver for girls whose access is further circumscribed by social barriers. Brining all these children to schools requires a rational planning and not just emotional slogans and impromptu announcements.

Enormity of the challenge demands consistent political commitment and a serious planning. No government alone can bridge this yawning deficit of services. The government of Sindh should engage all concerned stakeholders to develop a roadmap and a congruent institutional mechanism to convert the lofty slogan of emergency into credible action.

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