There are the Etons and Harrows of the UK, but also a public school system not way behind the elitist institutions
Lately, there has been a lot of noise in the media about how expensive good education is in Pakistan and how a cartel of private schools is fleecing Pakistanis. Private schools have loudly disagreed. Let me wonder aloud. If the situation is indeed tough for private schools as depicted in their massive advertisement given in dailies across Pakistan, then why do they continue to pop up in every nook and corner, unabated? What fuels their phenomenal expansion across and outside Pakistan? In the absence of a robust, affordable public school system, it is absolutely natural for private entities driven by profit to fill in the space and gradually monopolise an area of great national bearing. Who can deny the impact of an education system available to all strata of society? The ramifications of a broken down system serving niches in the population are monumental in terms of entrenching and perpetuating the divisions in society. The barriers thus erected severely limit fair access to opportunity.
Affordable, quality education is a fundamental right. Dare I say, it is the very foundation on which the edifice of democracy is raised. Education promotes tolerance, dismantling social barriers and prejudices. There was a time when schools in Pakistan were venerated institutions promoting values like mutual respect and peaceful co-existence and served to blur the class divide and bridge the chasm between classes. Many among us fondly recall the days of yore, when things were different. The schools run by Christian missionaries and state schools offered an environment that ensured upper-class children learnt to live with the less affluent ones. This led to increased social intermingling at an early age and dilution of class barriers. The fee structure was quite affordable, allowing a diverse cross section of society to offer decent education to their children. The coexistence of various economic classes under one roof also meant greater tolerance for differences like religion, caste and creed.
The story changed as people’s attitudes towards money changed. The source of the money did not matter and having less became a social stigma. The state abdicated its responsibility of offering affordable, quality education, leading to the collapse of the public school system. Two distinct education systems (private and public) thus emerged with divergent curriculums and modes of instruction, conflicting perspectives of the discourse on national security and the role of religion in society. Education fell prey to greed. The structure of the country’s civil service, bequeathed to us by the British, was inherently biased towards those proficient in English. Given the preeminence of employment in the civil services and the armed forces and its bearing on one’s social standing in society, English naturally supplanted Urdu as the language of the rulers and the elite. This accelerated the mushroom growth of private schools with fancy names and outrageous fees that were aimed squarely at the English-speaking classes. In a way, these private schools, their tall claims of serving the cause of education notwithstanding, reinforced class barriers. Schools gradually became places where you bought education without imbibing values like honesty, integrity, tolerance and social responsibility.
There is another debate raging between the free market exponents who never tire of advocating the laissez-faire doctrine and the torch-bearers of regulation, who never tire of speaking for state interventions to rein in the greed of private entities. This is an inconsequential argument given the sizeable number of proponents arguing for both the frameworks, citing examples of the US and Singapore to push the case of a free market or a regulated economy. I wish to dismiss neither and strongly believe that the success of both doctrines is a function of education, a popular awareness of rights, propensity to self-regulate and the extent of intellectual liberation in a society. I also believe state intervention sometimes becomes a compulsion, to put a leash on rampaging market forces. There are the Etons and Harrows of the UK, but then there is also a public school system, not on a par with the elitist institutions, but not way behind either. The way out for Pakistan is to invest heavily in public schools and reduce the stark difference between the two divergent streams of education. It is the absence of viable alternatives that has led to the present uproar against private schools. It is the exploitative relationship between a captive audience and the opportunistic private schools that is causing resentment, and justifiably so. And by the way, being married to a teacher for 15 years, I find the claim of private schools sharing half of their earnings with teachers to be ludicrous.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2015.
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