Filling A Gap in Pakistan’s School System

Posted on November 24, 2009


Amna Nawaz, NBC News

KARACHI, Pakistan – No one is exactly sure how old Taimur Muslim is.

A soft-spoken, lanky lad with a chipped front tooth and eyes undecided between green and gray, Taimur told me that school is his favorite part of the day, that he hates having to watch over his younger siblings at home, and that he wants to join the Army when he’s older.

“I’m not very good in classes,” he said through a shy smile. “But I don’t want to be a loafer. Teacher says we musn’t be loafers.”

Taimur told me he was 10 years old. But on that point, his voice was a little unsure. It’s an estimate – based on the fact that he began to work for a tailor full-time when he was 7 years old. He worked there for about three years, but stopped because of back problems. That’s when he came here and started kindergarten, just two months ago

Taimur is a student at a private school in Machar Colony, a slum housing 700,000 residents on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city. The school is tucked away in the narrow, trash-lined, labyrinthine streets and sits behind high walls and a guarded entrance gate. It was built and continues to be run by a Pakistani charity organization called the Citizens Foundation. 

Afshan Tabassum, the school’s principal, said Taimur’s story is typical for children in the area.  Parents were wary of the school at first; they were skeptical of a system that kept their children from working for part of the day and contributing to the family’s income.

But within a few months, Tabassum said, the idea caught on. Parents were lining up to enroll their children, eager to give them the education they themselves never had. Most of the students, she said, work during the half-day they don’t attend classes, and few have any idea how old they really are. The taller ones claim to be ten – mainly because that’s the age they think they should be.

“These kids have a very tough life,” explained Tabassum. “When I first arrived at this school, I tried to visit every child’s home to meet their family, to learn about their problems. I learned just how difficult these children’s lives are. Not only do they all work, they are also trying to go to school.”

In Taimur’s kindergarten classroom, he stands almost a head taller than most of the other students. His classmates, however, are a motley crew—some are literally half the height of others, ranging in age from 5-year-olds up to 10-year-olds. Baggy school uniforms are cinched tightly around too-slim waists. Pant cuffs are rolled up several times over to achieve the right length. During a math lesson, simple arithmetic problems on the chalk board are quickly and easily finished by some. And others are wholly incapable of completing basic addition. […]

Filling a need
The Federal Education Ministry published a national study in November 2008 showing that literacy rates across the country hover around 50 percent, and dip as low as 22 percent for women in underserved areas like Baluchistan. More than a third of all students who actually enroll in the public school system end up dropping out before they ever reach the sixth grade. And those statistics mark an improvement over ten years ago, when more than 50 percent of students dropped out by the same age.

The goal for Ateed Riaz, one of the founder-directors of The Citizens Foundation, is to maintain that trend of improvement.

Riaz said the government simply did not have the capacity to run the education system it nationalized in the 1970s and that the bureaucratic red-tape and political interference that now run the system have driven it into the ground. Though there have been over a dozen high-level commissions on how to fix the system, few, if any, of the recommendations have ever been implemented. Private charities and non-governmental organizations have stepped in to fill the void.

The Citizens Foundation is one such charity that raises money, mostly from expatriate Pakistanis, to build and run private schools across the country. They build schools in hard-to-reach rural or under-served urban areas and train handpicked teachers to educate as many children as they can with the standard, national curriculum.

Since its inception in 1995, the Citizens Foundation has built over 600 schools across Pakistan and enrolled 80,000 students.

 [Please click here to read the remainder of  this article.]

Click here for more information about the Citizen’s Foundation.

In the USA, you can visit the Citizens Foundation’s website at the following link.