As evening approaches in the centre of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, children gather at a small playground, chatting and laughing. It is a scene played out in countless parks across the country, but the children are not here to play after school - they are here to attend one.
For three hours every evening, free classes run here for anyone who wants to attend, with the idea being that some of the many children who live on Islamabad’s streets, or work in its markets and houses, might benefit.
Mohammad Ayub, who runs the unofficial school, began teaching children whose parents could not afford to send them to school in 1988.
Despite the fact that state-run primary schools do not charge fees and many provide free textbooks, other expenses (such as stationery, uniforms and transportation) mean that for many poor families, schools are unaffordable.
“It became quite popular and many parents who couldn’t afford a meal - forget education - would send their children to my little school in the evenings,” Ayub said.
The school, which relies on volunteers and donations, is one of dozens of informal institutions in the capital which are helping to educate children.
Pakistan has made limited progress in improving the quality and reach of its education system, and millions of children are missing out on schooling altogether in what the governments of Pakistan and the UK have termed an “education emergency”.
Despite making education a fundamental constitutional right in 2010, Pakistan has no chance of fulfilling its Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal education by 2015.
Over seven million primary-aged children do not attend school, according to a 2011 report by the Pakistan Education Task Force (PETF), a body which includes senior education officials and independent experts.
The UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said in 2010 that 30 percent of Pakistan’s population lives in a state of “extreme educational poverty” - receiving less than two years of education.
“We could clearly see that an emergency was unfolding. Fifty percent of children of primary school age were not attending school or not completing it,” said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, social sector adviser to the prime minister and PETF co-chair, adding: “We can no longer treat the education sector with a business-as-usual approach.”
PETF reckons the economic cost to Pakistan of not educating its people effectively translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity.
A success story
Many of those who have finished Ayub’s informal school in Islamabad have gone on to complete high school and college, and today have jobs they could never have dreamed of. Ayub estimates that 20 percent of the students finish grade 10, with around 10 percent going on to complete degrees at colleges.
Many, like Yasmin Nawaz, a 30-year-old mother of three who graduated from the school in 1994, became teachers themselves.
“I finished middle school, grade 8. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to high school, but Master Ayub said I must,” Nawaz said. “He paid for my textbooks and my exam registration fee, and in return, I taught here at the school. I then taught elsewhere as well.”
Despite the clear return on this investment and Pakistan’s pledge to spend at least 4 percent of its GDP on education, that figure has been decreasing. Education spending today stands at less than 1.5 percent of Pakistan’s GDP, according PETF (Page 67).
Fifty percent of children of primary school age are not attending school or not completing it.
“The government recognized this problem early on. We’ve been working hard, on our own and with our major partners, especially the British government, to improve the situation,” Ali said. “Much more needs to be done but the government has taken some significant decisions and implemented them too.”
These efforts include investments in teacher training, infrastructure and providing textbooks to students, but it is not merely a matter of getting children into school. The quality of their education also needs to be addressed, analysts say.
“One of the solutions you hear to the problems in Pakistan’s education sector is for the private sector to step up and fill the gap,” Abbas Rashid, executive director of the independent Society for the Advancement of Education, told IRIN. “Around 30 percent of students are attending private schools, but what kind of education are they getting?”
Private schools, analysts say, are preferred by parents over government schools, despite the higher fees, but the quality of education at these schools is often only marginally better. “The issue is: better does not necessarily mean adequate,” said Rashid.
According to the 2011 Annual State of Education Report (ASER) compiled by the South Asian Forum for Education Development, 45 percent of grade 5 students in public schools can only read a grade 2-level story in Urdu. The number is only slightly better in private schools - 57 percent.
That parents are concerned about quality is reflected by the fact that many of the students at Mohammed Ayub’s school attend government schools in the morning. Seven-year-old Rimsha Samuel goes to a government primary school in the morning, and after lunch, heads to Ayub’s school for further classes.
“After I study here, I understand my lessons really well. I don’t forget and do well in tests,” Samuel said.
Lack of resources not the only problem
Meanwhile, Ayub says: “Do I think the education system in Pakistan has let the children of this country down? Sure… But the reason for that is not lack of resources. If resources were an issue, where did they get money for all these school buildings where teachers don’t teach… There’s just no will to improve the situation.”
Experts agree that just throwing money at the problem will not solve it, and that policy and governance are issues that have to be dealt with at the same time to achieve any lasting results.
“Money is one of the main issues, but there is a problem with how policies are made. And they are constantly changed, not using the research that has been carried out on the sector,” said Fareeha Zafar, an independent education expert.
“There is the issue of governance, there are no accountability mechanisms. For example, even if you do have sufficient teachers - which we don’t - if they are not in school, it is not possible to achieve anything.”
The LEAPS (Learning and Educational Achievement in Pakistan Schools) project and PETF estimate that teachers in government schools, despite being paid more than their private sector counterparts and having greater job security, are not present one-fifth of the time. Government school teachers often use political connections and union action to protect themselves.
“Even if a senior officer reports a teacher that is not performing or not even attending school, it is very difficult to take action because they will involve the unions or go to an MNA [member of the National Assembly],” said Zafar.
“Even if you get that [teacher accountability], the quality of education, of textbooks, is an issue. So all of this needs to be considered, not just what is spent on education, but how.”