WAKE UP – IT’S TIME FOR SCHOOL
It was only recently that a shrewd economics graduate from my university claimed that the world as we know it is a fair place to live in. It follows the law of the jungle, where everyone has an equal chance to succeed. This got me thinking: true, there are success stories where the protagonist struggles and achieves against all odds. But what becomes of those who follow their dreams but never see them become reality? That success, economic and otherwise, has much to do with where we start from became disturbingly apparent to me during recent visits to three government primary schools in Lahore, Sheikhupura and Karachi. Despite being different in a few ways, all three schools are similar in their abject failure to provide education – even of the most basic kind.
The first school that I visited was located in a run-down industrial area of Lahore. It was spacious, yet had an eerie look, owing to its bare cemented walls, a lawn deprived of grass, and worn out classrooms. The school that I visited in Sheikhupura, in contrast, was located in a village much farther from the center of the city. It could only be approached through crop fields but surprisingly, was housed in a red-bricked building that seemed to be purpose-built. Possibly the school in the worst condition was the one in Korangi, Karachi. The campus was shabby and located in an area with frequent occurrences of crime and violence.
The most cardinal concern in these schools was a lack of resources. When asked whether the school combines classes to be taught, a teacher at the Korangi school helplessly revealed that there are nine classes with only five teachers at their school, hence the necessity of combining classes. The school in Lahore also housed five classes with only three teachers, one of them originally a janitor being utilized for the purpose. A further lack of resources became apparent to me in one of the schools when I happened to briefly teach Grade 4 students a chapter on computers. It was disheartening to see those little souls trying to describe a computer to me. It seemed that the only computer they had ever seen was in their textbook, which brings us to the question – where are all those promised computers and computer labs? Are they only meant to be written down for official records but never sent to their recorded destinations? If the inputs to learning are so insufficient and even altogether missing, one can hardly expect any acceptable quality of output.
It should come as no surprise that the testing outcomes of these schools are appalling. A question asking for the name of the relevant city to be circled from a comprehension passage that begins with the phrase “Karachi is a big city” and does not mention any other city, was frequently answered with “Lahore” and “Hyderabad”. More than half of the students from the Lahore school had absolutely nothing to write when asked to make a sentence with “home”, possibly the easiest word one could think of for young children. Despite their inability to comprehend most of the questions in the test, the children were naturally witty and displayed enthusiasm when we visited them. Weak test outcomes are alarming because our test was designed to gauge students’ understanding of the most basic concepts in the curriculum. While there is no doubt that the state is responsible for the failure of our education system, the teachers are also culpable of bringing about this disaster. I have learnt that the teacher holds an immensely powerful position by virtue of being able to stand at the head of the classroom, with tiny glowing eyes gazing back. An encouraging teacher should be able to guide the students to have faith in their own capacities. No student should be labeled as having a “weak mind” or berated for being “slow”, contrary to what seemed to be the norm in these schools.
After all, what use is a school that fails to teach? True, the existence of a school is better than the absence of it and some level of enrollment is better than none. Five students uncomfortably stuffed on a bench meant for just two or three is a more desirable scenario than students seated on the floor. Just the fact that these children are in school instead of toiling somewhere else is comforting – though fleetingly. The government aims to provide nation-wide primary education for free, but can this chaos even be called “education”? There are at least 8 million children currently out of school – a massive problem to be addressed – but what are the children who are going to school attaining? It doesn’t seem to be what one would call education. What will become of these children? In a fair world, such children would be provided preferential market treatment of sorts. But the world outside of school prefers not to take their initial conditions into account – nobody cares about who started where.