Special Correspondent: Study of education system in Pakistan claims dominance of ‘Urdu’ and ‘English’ is a barrier to effective schooling for all but linguistic elite and threatens to undermine social cohesion. Not now, Pakistan also tried to impose Urdu as state language in the united Pakistan.
Pakistan’s commitment to using Urdu as the medium of instruction in its state schools and its ambition to widen access to English language teaching is creating barriers to effective education, limiting economic mobility and undermining social cohesion.
These are the stark warnings made in a report on the current state of Pakistan’s schools published last month by the British Council and debated by academics and policy makers in a series of public meetings across the country.
The report, Teaching and learning in Pakistan: the role of language in education, sets out proposals that, if implemented, would seek to raise the status of the country’s main regional languages, lower barriers to higher-paid government jobs and help to strengthen ties between language groups at a time when political instability is straining national unity.
The report’s author, British academic Hywel Coleman, who is an honorary research fellow at the University of Leeds, argues that action must be taken urgently.
Pakistan is an economically divided society with 60% of its population living on less than $2 a day and more than a quarter of national income in the hands of the top 10%. Yet a language policy for schools, inherited from the British empire, is undermining the effectiveness of state education and excluding many of the poorest from skills and training that could help them break out of poverty.
The report’s key proposal is to provide teaching to students in the language they are most familiar with and, for the first time, reflect Pakistan’s multilingual identity in classrooms. There are more than 70 languages spoken in Pakistan, yet Urdu, the national language and the medium of instruction in the majority of state schools, is spoken by just 7% of the population.
Children learning in Urdu as a second language face major obstacles, particularly in their early years, Coleman says, which can range from slower progress in reading and writing to lack of support from parents who also struggle with Urdu.
The report urges Pakistan’s government to make schooling available in seven major regional languages, including Urdu, which would extend the delivery of first-language teaching to up to 85% of the population.
Coleman draws on global research into the impact of home language education on children’s attainment to argue that the policy could improve enrollments and help to boost attendance by girls. In Pakistan, just 60% of children compete primary school and only 10% finish secondary school, while 59% of girls attend primary school compared to 73% of boys.
Coleman also proposes a realignment of English in the curriculum. English remains the preserve of the country’s elite minority who are educated privately in English-medium schools and who can make an easy transition into English-medium higher education and higher-paid government jobs that require English-language qualifications.
Current government strategy seeks to widen access to these English-only social strata by improving the quality of English teaching in state schools. Yet the provision of effective teaching and materials has been uneven, with the result that the majority of learners are failing to make even basic progress in English.
Coleman’s alternative model is to provide early-years education in students’ regional languages, with Urdu taught as a second language in primary school. English would be taught from the age of 10, with the option to introduce English-medium teaching later in secondary school.
Coleman says his “wish list” for education reform has been positively received inside Pakistan. He is now in the process of analysing feedback before presenting his final proposals next April.
Fakhruddin Akhunzada is assistant director of the Forum for Language Initiatives, a local NGO that works with minority language speakers in the north of Pakistan to develop first-language education. While FLI’s initial projects are small, he says that results have been positive, and so far 70 students have received their education in their first language.
But FLI’s experience shows that it will be difficult to change entrenched attitudes about language status.
“People from most of these minor language communities are facing a kind of social stigma that their mother tongue is symbol of backwardness. They hesitate to use it and many believe that education in the mother tongue is inferior to education in Urdu or English. But our studies of pilot projects suggest that positive attitudes towards the mother tongue have been gaining ground over the past few years,” Akhunzada said.
Coleman believes that fundamental change will be necessary to raise the status of regional languages and give equality of access to opportunity. “That will be the biggest hurdle because it will directly challenge the privilege that some sectors of Pakistan society have enjoyed,” he said.
“At the moment, in order to gain access to the civil service and higher education you need to have a qualification in English. One of my suggestions is that people should have to demonstrate competence not only in English but also in Urdu and one of the other main regional languages. If that were to happen you would find that the elite private schools would start teaching other regional languages. Something like that would put the three languages on a more equal footing.”
Coleman hopes that pressure for change will come from international donors. Since 2002 the US has given $640m to improve education in Pakistan, with a further $7.5bn in civilian aid due over next five years. But at a recent conference, organised by Unesco in Bangkok, to assess progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goals for education, Coleman says there was little prospect of a shift in policy to support first language education.
“Pakistan is an urgent case. There was frustration at the conference that a lot of the international donors are not yet listening and are not aware of the relationship between languages in education and long-term implications for social cohesion,” he said.
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