The chief minister of Sindh had to face an embarrassing situation when a recalcitrant mafia trashed his strict instructions against cheating during the school examinations in Sindh. The media ridiculed the writ of the government by airing footages of unrelenting cheating in the examinations and leaking of exam papers on a daily basis. The situation reached a level when the government of Sindh had to summon the counter-terrorism department to bring the haywire examinations machinery under control.
Sindh was the leading province when it came to education indicators during the early decades of the country. However its education standard nose-dived particularly after the decade of 1980s. Over the years, the once glorified academic institutions of Sindh gained notoriety for substandard education, absentee teachers, politically appointed administration, sale and purchase of teaching jobs, unimpeded cheating in examinations, ghost teachers and dilapidated school infrastructure.
Subsequent governments made the education department a dumping ground of political favourites and the teachers’ job became a routine bribery and a commodity to trade in the market. Within two decades, all indicators of education faltered to a rock-bottom. Public universities kept churning out graduates devoid of minimum abilities. Many of these graduates made their way to the various government departments through political connections and the monetary magic. All this culminated into a sloppy and venal bureaucracy running the public affairs of the province.
Sindh took the lead in declaring education free and compulsory through an enactment after the 18th constitutional amendment that introduced Article 25-A to this effect. Similarly, the budgetary allocation for education consistently spiralled in Sindh and gets approximately one fourth of the total outlay. In spite of all that, most critical indicators of education depict a pitiable picture. The Economic Survey of Pakistan (2016-17) revealed that Sindh’s literacy rate has declined from 56 per cent in 2013-14 to 55 per cent in 2015-16. Literacy rate in the rural Sindh tumbled from 37 to 36 per cent. Whereas the public expenditure on education increased from Rs98,425 million in 2012-13 to Rs135,008 in 2015-16.
The provincial government boasts of consistently higher allocation and spending on the education sector but has no convincing explanation for the untenable performance indicators.
Comparing some key indicators of Sindh with Punjab provides a better insight into the state of education in the province. Sindh has a colossal 32 per cent dropout rate between the primary and the middle school levels. Whereas the dropout rate in Punjab at this level is only 12 per cent. A major reason for such huge dropout rate is the number of middle and high schools available in the two provinces. Sindh has only 19 per cent middle and high schools against 81 per cent primary schools of its total school strength. Whereas Punjab has 72 per cent of schools at the primary level compared to 28 per cent of its middle and high level schools. In other words, fewer students in Sindh get access to middle/high schools after passing their primary education.
The situation becomes even worse for girls who face a serious challenge after passing their primary education to access middle and high schools.
School infrastructure is another determinant to attract and retain students. Although some people believe that till a few decades back the country had most of the schools without basic facilities, the performance and quality of education was far better. Nevertheless, empirical research has proved that the quality of school infrastructure and availability of basic facilities have significant bearing on enrolment and retention of pupils.
According to the Pakistan Education Statistics 2015-16, approximately 95 per cent of the schools in Punjab have basic facilities available. Sindh’s statistics are rather disappointing. Punjab has 92 per cent schools with electricity compared to only 37 per cent in Sindh. 98 per cent schools in Punjab have drinking water facility compared to only 49 per cent in Sindh. Punjab’s 96 per cent schools have boundary wall whereas only 58 per cent schools in Sindh have this facility. Similarly 98 per cent schools in Punjab have toilet facility compared to only 53 per cent in Sindh. Boundary wall and toilets particularly have a visible impact on the enrolment of girls.
Sindh has a tendency of under-allocation and under-spending development budget in the education sector. In 2015-16, development expenditure was only Rs11,153 million against Rs123,855 million of administrative expenditure. Spending only 8 per cent on the development side would make it impossible to bridge the huge deficit of infrastructure. Punjab spends slightly better — 10.25 per cent — on infrastructure development in the education sector.
Sindh ought to enhance development budget to not only improve the existing schools but also add new schools because some reports suggest that approximately six million children in the province are out of school. This number continues to grow with a sizeable population growth.
A major problem that has plagued the education sector in Sindh is political interference. A large number of schools are non-functional (figures vary from 3000 to 7000 schools) and a significant number of teachers do not visit schools. No one has accurate figures of such teachers but the number runs into thousands. A serving provincial secretary in the education department revealed in 2014 that some 13,000 persons were illegally recruited in the department during the previous tenure of the government. Non-functional schools and ghost teachers enjoyed impunity due to political patronisation. Similarly posting of teachers has become a lucrative business in the province.
Most of the teachers, specially females, prefer getting posted in the urban areas. This has resulted in a skewed Students Teachers Ratio (STR). According to the statistics, 6277 schools in Sindh have more than 50 students per teacher whereas 10,814 schools have less than 14 students per teacher. This disparity of the STR needs serious attention. Overcrowded and multi-grade classrooms crammed with students do not offer a healthy learning environment. These factors have a plausible correlation with cognitive abilities of students. Indicators of the academic standards manifest these facts.
A district education ranking by Alif Ailaan project explains the aforementioned nexus. Even an insurgency-ravaged Balochistan has outshined Sindh. Alif Ailaan’s report of 2014 reveals that Sindh’s children scored poorly in reading and mathematics compared to other provinces of the country. 59 per cent students in class five could not fluently read Sindhi or Urdu, 75 per cent could not read a sentence in English fluently and 71 per cent could not do simple two digits division. According to overall district ranking, no district from Sindh found place in the 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 school ranking, Hyderabad is the only district of Sindh among top 50 districts, compared to four districts of Balochistan.
Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013 also made startling revelations about faltering quality of education in Sindh. Even FATA outshined rural Sindh on certain accounts. According to the report, 67 per cent of class-3 children in Sindh 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 class 5 could do two digit division in rural Sindh compared to 37 per cent in FATA.
In the modern era of knowledge economies, no nation can develop in the absence of robust educational standards. The current state of affairs in the education sector poses a grave challenge to Sindh as public sector will deflate in front of an expanding private sector in the coming years.