Latest media reports confirm that the FATA Secretariat has served termination notices to almost 700 class-four employees from the education departments in the tribal areas where schools were blown up by militants during the past year. A huge blow to a critical section of the war-stricken poor in a region with a literacy rate as low 17.42 per cent (and only three per cent among females). At the federal and provincial levels it is 59.6 per cent.
The annual expenditure on education in FATA had been Rs1.5 billion until 2001. In 2004-5 the education budget was nearly doubled, to Rs2.7 billion. But this increase is virtually meaningless: it is estimated that, for the provision of universal primary education alone, another Rs1.08 billion are required.
According to the latest data available with the FATA Secretariat in Peshawar, there are 5,620 educational institutions, including 196 mosque schools, 3,640 primary schools, 455 middle schools, 275 high schools, 13 higher-secondary institutions, 37 degree colleges, four elementary colleges, 956 community schools and 44 industrial homes. There are 3,271 educational centres for boys and 2,349 for girls. The number of sanctioned teachers is 22,045, 14,974 males and 7,071 females.
However, most of these schools exist “on paper,” not in the physical sense. The number of students enrolled in these institutions is 607,004, with 405,602 boys and 201,402 girls. A handful of the “ghosts school” are buildings where tribal maliks have their personal hujras or use them for business centres. There are even some buildings where they keep their animals.
The government’s Annual School Census Report on Educational Institutions for 2008-09 says that 1,015 primary schools in FATA, 87 of them for girls, have no boundary walls; 1,316 boys’ schools and 583 girls’ schools have no drinking-water facilities; and 1,555 boys’ schools and 454 girls schools have no electricity. 1,453 boys’ and 344 girls’ schools have no toilets. Meanwhile, apart from the high instance of corporal punishment in FATA’s schools, there have been cases of sexual abuse.
This situation explains the overall low enrolment and high dropout rate in FATA’s schools. In this state of affairs, few parents would want their children to go to school.
With no accountability system in place, a large number of schoolteachers turn up only to collect their salaries. Needless to say, there is no proper way of assessing, evaluating and monitoring the performance of the teaching staff.
There is intense political interference in the matter of transfers, postings and appointments of staff. Meanwhile, scholarships are disbursed through the political agent, and he is at liberty to awards those scholarships to anyone he favours.
Besides lack of basic facilities like desks and fans in the classrooms, drinking water and latrines, lack of transportation for pupils to and from school, and teachers’ absenteeism, there is the matter of unaffordable tuition fees, and this despite the abysmal teaching standards.
Non-availability of separate schooling arrangements for girls is another important issue. Of the 11 higher-secondary schools in FATA, there are only three for girls. Hostel facilities for girls are nonexistent. Besides, poverty, inconvenient locations of schools and lack of extra-curricular activities make schooling less appealing for children.
The reason for teachers’ absenteeism has largely been non-payment of their salaries. The education department in the FATA Secretariat has failed to pay out salaries to teachers for months now, which forces them to quit their jobs and look for some other means of livelihood.
At the girls’ college in Miranshah, the headquarters of North Waziristan Agency, there are only two teachers for the 350 students. So much for the status for the importance the government accords to education in the tribal areas, and for its interest in this vital field.
The rest of the job of the destruction of what little education there was in the region was done by the militants. They have blown up some 235 schools in the recent in their campaign to destroy secular education and leave the students with the sole option of joining a madressah – and end up as fanatics and jihadis.
The more well-off families in FATA can afford to send their children to schools and educational institutions in nearby cities like Peshawar, and to Islamabad and other urban areas. There is a serious downside to this: students spending years in more developed urban environments seldom want to return to FATA.
Thus, the youth, the very section of FATA’s society who could be the vehicles of development in their backward region, prefer to stay away from it. This contributes to FATA being the domain of the corrupt maliks and obscurantist mullahs, and a magnet for international terror groups and other criminals.
If the area is to be put on the path of progress and prosperity, a prospect which is much talked about in the ruling circles, promotion of education should have top priority for the government. A change in attitudes in FATA, and in Pakistan as a whole, could be ensured only through the provision of quality education. This is possible only if radical changes are brought about in the present curriculum, which fails to encourage creative thinking, an attitude of enquiry and problem-solving skills. Even the ability of self-expression.
To achieve this end, a well-planned teachers’ training programme should be devised, requiring the use of multimedia tools by students. Science teachers should be able to develop a modern approach and scientific outlook among student. Besides, computer literacy programmes should be made an essential part of education.
To make schools and other educational institutions attractive for students, extra-curricular activities like quizzes, debate, singing competitions, sports and scouting should be actively promoted. This will automatically increase enrolment and decrease the dropout rate.
The construction of new schools and vocational training centres, besides rehabilitation of the existing “ghost schools,” non-functional and damaged schools should be immediately provided basic facilities like drinking water, electricity and toilets, proper seating arrangements. Schoolhouses lacking boundary walls should have them, especially schools for girl students. The lack of boundary walls is the several reasons why parents are reluctant to send their daughters to school.
Similarly, girls’ education would become more popular if safe and dependable transportation, and hostels for higher-education institutions, were made available to female students and teachers.
At the same time, a system should be put in place for the evaluation, monitoring and assessment of performance of the teaching staff. A performance-based promotion system would leave little room for political interference. Community members, parents’ organisations and the media could be made part of the monitoring process.
This monitoring could also translate into a vigilant eye being kept on private institutions, to make sure they impart quality education, and not using provision of education strictly for moneymaking.
To minimise political interference, scholarships should be awarded to the best-performing students, with the political agent being bypassed. This could be done through an autonomous body with a good reputation in the domain of education. Scholarships should be made conditional upon the students awarded scholarships being under a binding pledge to their respective areas in FATA for a specified period after the completion of their courses. Since scholarships will require private donations, the donors’ involvement will sharply reduce chances of favouritism and corruption in the process.
Apart from all these positives, the return of scholarship recipients to their areas from the cities, where they will be exposed to a modern and heterogeneous environment, will mean the infusion of fresh ideas in their more backward communities.
The writer heads the FATA Research Centre.