By Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das, C. Christine Fair, and Asim Ijaz Khwaja writing for the Foreign Policy
Posted June 2009
And how private schooling can save Pakistan’s next generation.
On May 3, the New York Times published a lengthy description of Pakistan’s education system. The article, like so many before it, rehearsed a well-known narrative in which government schools are failing while madrasas are multiplying, providing a modicum of education for Pakistan’s poorest children.
“The concentration of madrasas here in southern Punjab has become an urgent concern in the face of Pakistan’s expanding insurgency,” veteran Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise wrote. “The schools offer almost no instruction beyond the memorizing of the Koran, creating a widening pool of young minds that are sympathetic to militancy.”
The story coincided with a debate in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee over a new aid package for Pakistan. The proposed legislation, among other initiatives, focuses upon eliminating madrasas with ties to terrorism and reforming the public school system, riven with teacher absenteeism and out-of-date pedagogy. Numerous charitable organizations and NGOs have also embraced this dual focus.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned approach risks failure. First, contrary to the public hysteria about madrasas serving as “weapons of mass instruction,” in 2005, just 1.3 percent of children in Pakistan’s four main provinces attended madrasas. Most students attend public schools (nearly 65 percent), and the remainder attend nonreligious private schools (34 percent). Nor are madrasas the last resort of the poor. In fact, the socioeconomic profiles of madrasa and public school students are quite similar — except that madrasas have more rich students than public schools. Of the extremely small number of households enrolling at least one child full time in a madrasa, 75 percent use other types of schools to educate their other children.