General

In Pakistan public education suffocates under surging population

TANJAI CHEENA, Pakistan, At the Tanjai Cheena school in northwest Pakistan students squeeze into makeshift classrooms where plastic tarps serve as walls and electricity is sparse, as a surging population overstretches the country's fragile education system.

Sandwiched behind desks like sardines, students repeat words learned in

Pashto and English during an anatomy lesson: Guta is finger, laas is hand.

Two teachers rotate between four classrooms at the school, which lacks even

the most basic amenities including toilets.

The girls usually go to my house and the boys to the bushes, says

principal Mohammad Bashir Khan, who has worked at the school in the

picturesque Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for 19 years.

With birth control and family planning virtually unheard of in this

ultraconservative region, the illequipped public school system has not kept

up with population growth.

In 1984, when my father started the school, there were 20 to 25 kids. Now

they are more than 140, Khan says.

Pakistan sits on a demographic time bomb after years of exponential growth

and high fertility rates resulted in a population of 207 million two

thirds of whom are under the age of 30.

And each year the country gains three to four million more people,

overburdening public services from schools to hospitals.

'Emergency education'

At the Malok Abad primary school in the town of Mingora, 700 boys share six

classrooms, many of which remain damaged from a 2005 earthquake with clumps

of plaster still falling from their ceilings.

The youngest students study in the courtyard sitting on the ground, while

others are forced to gather on the roof under the baking sun.

We are doing our best. But those kids are neglected by the system, says

teacher Inamullah Munir.

On the girls' side, the situation is even more dire with the smallest

classes hosting up to 135 students packed into a space measuring about 20

square metres.

This is emergency education, said Faisal Khalid, a local director at the

education department in Swat.

The stakes are high in a country where education has long been neglected

and received little in the way of funding as Pakistan focused on fighting

militancy.

Swat shouldered the extra burden of combating a deadly Taliban insurgency

that saw dozens of schools destroyed and the shooting of schoolgirl and

education activist Malala Yousafzai in 2012.

As peace has returned to the region, public spending on education has

increased, but it still falls short of the province's growing needs.

Prime Minister Imran Khan's Pakistan TehreekeInsaf party has made

quality education for all its rallying cry since taking the helm of the

provincial government in 2013.

In the last five years 2,700 schools have been built or expanded, while

57,000 new teachers have been recruited.

Authorities have also more than doubled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's education

budget between 2013 and 2018.

That was the biggest increase in the history of this province, explains

Atif Khan, the former provincial education minister.

Low literacy levels

But the rise in spending is no match for Pakistan's swelling demographics,

even as the government plans to expand existing facilities and extend working

hours in an attempt to meet demand.

The topranked public high school in provincial capital Peshawar is a

striking example of the challenges facing educators and students, who number

70 to a room despite the addition of a dozen new classrooms.

The more classrooms we build, the more they will be filled, says Jaddi

Kalil, who heads the educational services department in the area.

Pakistan now spends 2.2 percent of its GDP on education, the country's

Minister of Education Shafqat Mahmood told AFP, adding that the amount was

set to double in the coming years.

Even more worrying, the increased funding has failed to put a dent in the

province's illiteracy rates, with only 53 percent of children above 10 years

of age able to read and write.

The situation is replicated across Pakistan, with 22.6 million children out

of school nationwide a figure that is likely to increase, given the

country's unbridled population growth.

The quality of teaching is also a cause for concern with just one in two

students able to solve basic math problems upon completing primary school,

according to the finance ministry.

Only elites have access to quality education, a recent report by the UN

Development Programme (UNDP) said.

With its economy already on the rocks, Pakistan faces the unenviable task

of having to create between 1.2 and 1.5 million skilled jobs annually to

employ recent graduates, the UNDP report said.

Poor education is a recipe for frustration, while good education allows

for more cohesion and less extremism, said Adil Najam, the author of the

UNDP study.

All the important problems of Pakistan are related to education.

Source: Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS)