Education in Pakistan

Pakistan needs schools, teachers, secular curriculum and an efficient system to replace the madrasas.

On December 16th, 2015, 6 militants from the Tehreek-e-Taliban group gained access to the Army school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and murdered 145 people including 132 children. The attack was said to be retaliation and revenge for the Zarb-e-Azb operation that Pakistan has been conducting since June 2014 to rid the North Waziristan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa regions of militants. The savagery of the violence has prompted people within the government and outside to reassess Pakistan’s strategy of sleeping with terrorists. The government and the military were forced for a brief moment last month to stop and reassess their convenient narratives of good vs. bad terrorists in wake of the attack.


The government has drawn up plans to de-radicalise the country post the December attack. Alongside reforms in military action and law and order, reforming and regulating the system of education in the country has been talked about. However, this is not a radical new initiative. Almost every government has talked about changing the school curriculum, rewriting it to better reflect Pakistan’s history and encourage critical thinking in its students. Each time, the government has failed to push forward anything concrete for fear of risking the ire of the military complex and the religious right.

Pakistan’s education system has been at the receiving end of a series of disastrous policies since the 1970s. With only 1.9 percent of GDP of the combined budget being allocated for education and a literacy rate that hovers at 50–60 percent, the state of education in Pakistan, is failing. While bad policies continue to chip away at the education system, Pakistan has been facing a threat in home grown radicals destroying schools and all ‘western’ forms of educational systems, especially schools for girls. The Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) in a report released after the Peshawar attack, noted that between 2004 – 2013, there were 724 non-fatal attacks on schools in Pakistan, with 136 of them being directly claimed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban.

While the motivations for the Peshawar attack was different from those that brought down the 724 schools, it is beyond doubt that educational institutions have become the easiest targets for terrorists. Education has become a risky proposition in the country and the blame lies squarely at the feet of a paranoid, insecure, incapable state.

The terrorist outfits have been working towards the goal of establishing a religious state and erasing any sign of secularism in Pakistan. To this end, any system or institution that is ‘western’ in outlook, and does not propagate or stand for extremist Islamic ideology, and practice and that threatens the Islamic order of things is under threat in Pakistan. The easiest targets have been schools, and minorities. The consequences of letting religious dogma dictate who should get educated, where they can get educated and what they can be educated in has had two problematic consequences. Schools teach from a curriculum that is centered on a narrow definition of Islam, conspiracy theories and imagined history. This remains the idea of a normal curriculum in public and private schools in most parts of the country.

Two and more troubling is the record number of madrassas that are aiming to fill the vacuum that the destruction of public and private schools leave. These madrassas, funded by foreign governments often lean towards a narrow interpretation of religion, and rarely attempt to make a student employable. The Pakistan government and the ministry of religious affairs, independently released two reports in early January, that indicate the severity Pakistan’s tryst with the religious extremists.

The Express Tribune, has reports that show the provincial home department presenting data to the ministry of religious affairs, indicating that almost 3.5 million students studying in 35,337 madrassas around Pakistan. The highest number of registered madrassas, according to the home department data is in operation in Punjab and Balochistan province. These are the known figures. There are further 8250 madrassas that remain unregistered and unregulated. The second report that the government released, shows that close to 80 seminaries have received financial support amounting to more than 300 million in rupees from foreign countries. The biggest donors come from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. The link between terrorists and madrassa education remains tenuous and not wholly substantiated. There have been studies that show that madrassas for many people fill the same role that a religious class does for any other religion. Christine Fair in her research also concludes that the high degree of technical training that a terrorist often has could not have come from studying in a madrassa alone. She does, however, report that “there are reasons to believe that Pakistan’s madrasas do matter, even given that they educate a mere fraction of Pakistan’s young men and that (far more numerous) public school students also seem to have a propensity to support political violence”

The Government of Pakistan’s intention to reform education has however not translated into effective policies that would ensure modernisation of educational institutions. The number of attacks on schools, the source of funding for alternate education, and the unknowns offer a peak into the grim realities. The lack of a universal curriculum, and the provincial control of education makes it difficult to impose a structured curriculum that does is not coloured with distorted views of the state and its religious slant. Within madrassas specifically, the issues is that the students learn only that which a religious trust or a generous foreign donor sees fit. The lack of oversight and regulation by the state government makes controlling what is being taught even more difficult. Most madrassas teach a virulent and extremist version of Islam. Their associations with mosques and Muslim religious leaders who openly call for deeper implementation of Sharia, and ridding the country off infidels makes them a breeding ground for Sunni/Wahhabi/Deobandi school of Islam.

Madrassas are often not very open to the idea of educating girls. With very few functioning, public schools, and far too expensive private schools, girls are losing out on education in most parts of the country. Balochistan has one of the worst literacy rates for girls. The province in the last year has seen 70 percent of its girls drop out of schools, a 26 percent literacy rate. The number of religious madrassas far exceeds the number of public schools with teachers in the province.

There are plenty of reasons to worry about the parallel system of education that is stepping in lieu of mainstream schools. Most madrassas are designed to give students the knowledge to become maulvis in mosques. When that fails, students remain unemployed, with no alternate career choices to fall back on. A faltering economy, and lack of government support for finding employment renders them vulnerable and potential recruits for various militant organisations. Saudi Arabia’s funding of madrassas and mosques brings into question the kind of influence the country exerts on Pakistan. It is quite well known that Saudi Arabia has been a generous donor for Pakistan and has heavy influence in the region. It’s more than 1.5 billion dollars in gift for the government last year was one of the biggest friendly gestures to the country. With the funding of seminaries and future maulvis, Saudi Arabia moves into an entirely new realm of influence.

Madrassas straddle the ambiguous intersection where the government, military and jihadi outfits meet. It would require power and strategic moves over the two players, for the Pakistani government to reform and regulate the education space. The time period post the Peshawar attack was the most opportune moment. By attacking a military school, the religious outfits had created an imbalance. The government still has time to bring forward an education reform plan and implement it at the earliest. While eliminating madrassas completely, remains out of the question, the government can work towards securing and building secure public schools that offer the students a better chance of employable education.

Pakistan needs schools, teachers, secular curriculum and an efficient system to replace the madrassas. The country’s plan to bring any semblance of order into a country ravaged by sectarian strife, crumbling infrastructure, and an increasingly powerful militant network can be stopped only if it takes steps to reform from the bottom up. Arming teachers with guns cannot be the first step.

Photo: Alice Hutchinson