Pakistan’s youthful population creates education challenges

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani private schools, charitable institutions, and religious seminaries are stepping in to supplement government-run schools to help deal with the education needs of a fast-growing nation with an estimated 50 million school-age children.

Despite 220,000 schools nationwide, Pakistan has over 20 million out-of-school children, according to a 2016 government report.

The government has pumped money into schooling, with the education budget swelling by 15 percent every year since 2010, according to education consultancy Alif Ailaan. The United Nations puts the current budget at 2.65 percent of GDP, roughly $8 billion, or around $150 per student.

But experts say the government can’t meet all the education needs and part of the problem lies in quality of teaching rather than just dearth of money.

“It’s not the number of schools, it’s the quality, the attitude,” said Zeba Hussain, founder of the Mashal Schools which educate children displaced by war in the country’s north.

Situated on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, the charitable schools began when Hussain met a group of refugee children while visiting the hills encircling the city.

Many private institutions criticize what they describe as a deeply flawed government education system.

“Students are labeled ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ right from the start,” said Shaista Kazmi from Vision 21, a privately-funded NGO that runs speed literacy programs for out-of-school children that compress five years of reading proficiency into one.

Federal education director Tariq Masood strongly disagreed with critiques of teachers, adding that population growth and funding were the biggest challenges faced by government schools.

“No one who is underqualified can enter the government system, there are fewer checks in the private system,” Masood said.

Masood said government schools adhered to a nationwide curriculum that was being constantly reworked and innovated.

The country’s poorest often send their children to one of the thousands of religious madrassas (the Arabic word for school) where students are boarded, fed, and given an Islamic education. Most operate without government oversight.

Pakistan’s madrassas have become synonmous with creating militant fighters through hardline teachings of Islam and many have been linked to organizations such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

But many provide shelter, three full meals, and a good education to young people whose families are unable to make ends meet.

“In certain cases people send their kids because they can’t even afford to feed them,” said Irfan Sher from the Al-Nadwa Madrassa, where all subjects are prioritized and students are capable of analyzing what they are taught.

Sher insists that the country’s future hinges on what its youth are taught.

“The overall policy should be changed … they should understand that if they want to change the country the only way is to spread quality education,” he said.