An hour’s walk after the road ends and vehicles have to be abandoned, in a tiny mountain village called Pehlwan, there is a school in a cavernous concrete room that is a mosque. The village lies above Abbottabad.
Seven students of different grades are huddled on mats on the floor.
I show them a map of Pakistan from their own schoolbook and ask what it is.
“A mountain?” a student hazards a guess.
The girls’ and boys’ primary schools in this village were destroyed by the 2005 earthquake and the reconstruction projects started since have been abandoned.
Concrete skeletons of unfinished buildings – two of 2,000 school reconstruction projects abandoned by contractors in the earthquake-affected area – are situated high on the mountain slope.
But the problem in Pehlwan is not that there are no school buildings. The teachers have found makeshift spaces.
The problem is that there is no education.
‘A building is not a school’
Since 9/11, some Pakistani provinces have made strides in education thanks to hard-nosed political will at the highest levels. But so far, the reforms process has focused on low-hanging fruit of Pakistan’s education challenge issues such as teachers’ and students’ attendance and fixing infrastructure.
The ultimate conundrum starts once you have a building with teachers and students inside: how do you get the children to learn?
“Is it more tragic that kids are out of school or that they are in a school and yet illiterate,” asks Dr Faisal Bari, an economist based in Lahore.
That is what the visit to the schools in Pehlwan demonstrated.
In another school in Pehlwan, the teacher has a master’s degree and holds a USAID teachers guide in her hand. Both USAID and Beaconhouse have trained her to teach literacy. But eight months later, her third graders cannot identify the first letter in “Pakistan” in any language.
These anecdotes are consistent with the data. Various research surveys show that over half of the third graders in government schools in Pakistan cannot read or write a sentence in Urdu.
A team of economists have collected data on learning levels through their project, Learning and Educational Achievement in Punjab Schools (LEAPS). According to their data on private schools in Faisalabad, only 33pc of third graders could write a grammatically correct sentence in Urdu in 2014. That statistic has not changed since 2003. By grade 5, the rate doubles to 66pc.
However, these private school students are about two grades ahead of kids in government schools even though their teachers have lower degree qualifications, less training and dramatically lower salaries than government teachers.
It also costs half as much to educate a child in a private school than what the government spends per student in government schools.
Private schools do better simply because teachers show up, according to LEAPS. It is no wonder then that if a parent can afford a few hundred rupees a month for a private school, he or she will spend it. According to federal statistics, nearly 40pc of children in Punjab are in private schools.
“The learning that our schooling imparts in five years can probably be had in about six months,” surmises Haris Gazdar, senior researcher at the Collective for Social Science Research in Karachi.
Low learning levels, low enrolment?
“It’s getting harder and harder to get kids in schools without addressing the problem of quality learning and jobs,” says Haroon Sethi, deputy team leader of DFID’s Punjab education reform team.
In interviews, experts described the low enrolment in government schools in Pakistan as a rational choice by parents.
“If there are proper schools, I will send my kids there,” says a parent in Pehlwan, “But I won’t send them to schools like these [government schools].”
“Poor parents of children in Pakistan would rather send them to work than school because children learn so little,” says Dr Scherezad Latif at the World Bank, who has a PhD in education.
Punjab’s enrolment and adult literacy rates are behind those of the world’s least developed countries and of sub-Saharan Africa.
This is why Punjab is experimenting with solutions. Ipad-carrying monitors visit schools every month, quizzing grade 3 students in Urdu, English, and math. The highest performing districts are rewarded while the lowest performing districts must answer to Shahbaz Sharif.
KP, like Punjab, is investing in teacher training, re-writing textbooks and strengthening the examination structure.
No easy answers
The desk of the district education official in Abbottabad is piled high with new teacher guides that outline daily lesson objective and activities for every grade level and subject. But it’s not going to be easy or quick to make schools places where kids learn, by just training the existing teachers and giving them lesson plans.
“We’re not at the stage where you can turn 400,000 people into good teachers overnight,” says Sethi, “Their capabilities are low and we still have issues of overcrowding and multiple grades in one classroom.”
It is in this context that the hiring of teachers “on merit” is giving hope to many who are watching the education sector.
“This is the first time that teachers are being hired on merit in KP,” says Salar Khattak who belongs to a teachers union in KP.
Observers say the provinces are discouraging parliamentarians from doling out teaching jobs to political supporters.
“MPAs we talk to say it’s not just difficult but impossible to get their own people in there,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, campaign director at Alif Ailaan.
“The political patronage model of hiring teachers in the Punjab, for the most part, is over.”
Teachers hired on merit are more likely to be motivated to teach. But in the meantime, there has been little improvement in learning.
According to Ali Inam, who is a consultant to a donor supporting the Punjab reform programme, “The Punjab government faces a harder question now: how do we get teachers to teach effectively?”
“To resolve it, they are trying to take on many big issues at once – teacher quality, classroom effectiveness, testing, curriculum and textbooks. They have a lot of support from donor organisations and money is not an issue. But the problem is so big that we’ll see improvement in 10 or 15 years.”