Away from the rough and tumble of politics is an issue that touches the lives of millions of young students but can’t seem to get a place on the radar of the country’s policymakers. It is the restart of educational activities in the presence of the looming even if greatly-reduced threat of the return of Covid-19.
Generally, Pakistan has not done badly during the pandemic. When most of the more resourceful countries are still bending and even breaking their backs trying to tame the virus, the country has gone for a full-throttle reopening of activity in every sphere of national life. Schools, colleges and universities, too, are limping back to regular teaching hours. This week the final leap of faith — reopening junior classes — will be taken. Yet unlike business, commerce, trade and travel, the return to education has not been smooth or worry-free.
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The COVID-forced digital learning, while much talked about as a value-addition to tools of teaching and learning, has not been a national success. The pupils in the majority of resource-starved schools had no clue about the use educational technology nor was there any infrastructure to provide them with a crash course in distance learning. As a result, a vast majority — general estimates are about 70 per cent of the total school-going children — remained off the education grid during the past six months of the Covid-19 shutdown.
This introduced a new disparity in an already uneven educational terrain, which, according to a Unicef report, has deep structural problems. With the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children (about 22.8m or 44 per cent of the total population in the age bracket of 5-16) and extreme educational deprivation along gender and poverty lines, the setback to millions of students is big. Parents have pulled children out of school, and as always this has affected girls more than the boys.
With the schools reopening, these problems should have been addressed. But this isn’t the case. At present Pakistan’s schools are using the so-called hybrid model, alternating regular school hours with distance learning and dividing students into groups that are required to attend classes strictly under Covid-19 standard operating guidelines on their designated days. Predictably, not every school can pull it off. Many are housed in shack-like structures. Others have severe shortage of teachers. Yet others have staff that is underpaid and has no motivation to measure up a challenge that requires spending extra time and heavy energy expenditure.
Unfortunately, most national forums including the parliament, the provincial assemblies and government meetings have zero time for such matters. Seedy power politics with a daily dose of dispiriting scandals is the order of the day. No one, it seems, is interested in representing the educational hopes and fears of the youth of one of the world’s most youthful countries
There are other problems too. Curriculum has had to be cutdown considerably to fit into limited teaching hours available. This has huge learning costs. Alternate school days disable students from finding the momentum and routine of showing up for regular classes. Most miss out both categories of learning.
Parents are still reluctant to let children spend time in schools and their apprehensions are reinforced by daily news of this or that campus being shut down for either violating SOPs or for discovery of infected individuals. Private school administrators complain of the government’s unscientific bias against school reopening. They rightly say that the tough conditions applied to the education sector are nonexistent elsewhere like shopping malls and cinema and marriage halls, for instance. All of this speaks of a fairly large educational disarray even as governments in the provinces and at the centre congratulate the nation on “the-return-to-the-school good news”.
Uncertainty about the future
There are large learning losses that remain undocumented. Teaching has become an exercise in trial-and-error. Motivation levels among all stakeholders are low. Uncertainty about the future is widespread. Even the most predictable examination systems are now open to controversy.
The October-November Cambridge exams for A and O levels have evoked strong reaction from the students. Social media is abuzz with a campaign to cancel the exams. More than 12000 students have signed a petition making the demand on the ground that the schools neither prepared them for the exams since they only reopened a month ago nor the previous months of shutdown were spent preparing them for the task. On top of it, Cambridge has issued strict guidelines for students taking the exams this fall about protection against Covid-19. Cambridge-related schools now require all students to fill in and sign an affidavit or a consent form that places the burden of spread of infection in the examination hall to the candidates.
“Cambridge Assessment International Education and the school are not responsible for any illness I suffer (sic) from directly or indirectly as a result of my attendance,” reads a clause from one such form. “Who should we blame if we get infected”, asks an A-level student on his Instagram page. Most students are demanding that like the earlier session, where Cambridge allowed predicted grades set by the schools to become their actual grades, this session too should rely on grades-without-exams formula. This is unlikely. The students say they would settle for the cancellation of the exams as a second priority but the government is not paying any attention to their grievances. “The system sucks” wrote a female student in her post, “it is designed to ruin our careers. I don’t want to study any more”. Such emotions are not rare; every second statement from the students written or heard has undertones of deep disappointment with the way their issues are being handled.
If there was a national discourse on how to manage this tricky phase to restart the educational activities, perhaps some of this anger would have found a natural and a more productive channel. Unfortunately, most national forums including the parliament, the provincial assemblies and government meetings have zero time for such matters. Seedy power politics with a daily dose of dispiriting scandals is the order of the day. No one, it seems, is interested in representing the educational hopes and fears of the youth of one of the world’s most youthful countries.
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12