360° Analysis

Finding the Middle Ground: Secular and Religious Education


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October 19, 2013 14:29 EDT

In Pakistan, low-fee private schools are steadily growing.

Several years ago, I visited al-Fattah School in one of Karachi’s underdeveloped areas. During the day, children sat at their desks in neat rows, crisp in their collared shirts, learning English from their Oxford University Press texts.

Hours later, benches replaced the desks and little girls donned white headscarves to join the boys, weaving back and forth while reciting the Qur’an. The morning teachers were mostly young women, but all of the afternoon staff was men.

“We try to give them a solid grounding in Islamic education and in Western education,” the headmistress explained. “It’s important to have both.”

Al-Fattah is one of the thousands of low-cost private schools springing up to join the plethora of Pakistani school offerings: English-medium, high-cost private schools; Urdu-medium government schools; and the madrassa system schools.

The marketing advantage for low-cost private schools is that they ostensibly offer the same English-medium curriculums as higher-cost private schools, but at affordable rates for minimum wage earners. Some are now also offering a market alternative to madrassas: a curriculum that includes the loosely defined “Islamic Studies.” Any discussion of Pakistani education must involve the possibilities and pitfalls of this mushrooming system.

The History of Pakistani Schools

British colonial rulers formally introduced English-medium education into the Indian subcontinent for elite civil servants of the Empire, superimposing schools on a system already including traditional madrassas. Notably, before gaining their current notoriety, madrassasexisted as a tertiary system funded by charitable endowments.

Friction developed after the British suppression in 1835 when Arabic and Persian instruction — along with religious instruction — was banned in school. Two competing institutions, purporting two different ideologies, emerged as a result: the Deoband madrassa Dar-ul-Uloom, founded in 1867; and the Mohammaden Anglo-Oriental School (later Aligarh University), founded in 1875.

Aligarh posited that the Muslims of the subcontinent could learn the “Western” disciplines, particularly sciences, and integrate them with a traditional Islamic education while the Deoband model featured resistance to foreign education altogether. These ideas still remain an unresolved issue in Pakistani debate on education.

After independence, the national system of education existed in a mostly laissez-faireatmosphere with a brief exception in 1971-77. In 1979, state-run schools were denationalized. Pakistanis will often blame this policy for the failure of the ensuing system. “We used to have a working system until they tore it apart,” one man told me.

The current system exists in a patchwork of competing ideologies and systems: Urdu vs English, government vs private, and Islam vs Western. Although the focus is often on themadrassa system — now frequently funded by the oil-rich Gulf States and their brand of conservative Islam — in actuality the current madrassa system educates approximately 1.7 percent of the population.

In contrast, the growing private sector educates roughly 22 percent, with another 20 percent of children out of school and 60 percent in government schools. The increasing demand for education and lackadaisical government policies contribute to the trend of private schooling, with even the poorest parents attempting to enroll their child in an English-medium school.

The question becomes whether these schools can address the multiple schisms in Pakistani education as well as effectively educate children, or whether the schools are simply creating another insurmountable division in an already-schizophrenic society.

The Phenomenon of Low-cost Private schools

Low-cost private (LCP) schools in Pakistan range from 100-300 rupees per month ($1 to $3) and include such giants as The Citizens Foundation (TCF). TCF, a Pakistani non-profit set up in 1995 in Karachi, maintains 910 schools across Pakistan and strives to educate the poorest citizens.

In addition to these organized movements, many educational entrepreneurs found schools in Pakistan like al-Fattah. In many parts of Karachi, there are schools on every corner providing pre-primary to secondary education.

In a recent study, the growth of the schools was documented as higher in rural and poverty-stricken areas, with test scores often higher and teacher absenteeism lower. Teaching staff are predominantly female due to the lower salaries provided for staff. TCF notes on its website that it employs 6,300 exclusively female teaching staff.

Low-cost private schools often sprung up in the wake of girls secondary colleges, because they had a source of educated young women to teach — although arguably the teachers do not necessarily obtain formal teacher education. This means that quality varies greatly across the board without much government attempt to regulate the output of such schools.

International agencies such as USAID, DFiD, and the World Bank, which put a recent estimate of private schools at 58,000 across Pakistan, have conducted research to support and fund the private school trend, arguing that it is similar to the charter school movement in the United States and will “fill the gap” of educational access as well as “defang the Taliban.” In a best-case scenario, low-cost schools would provide economic opportunities and a local, West-friendly version of Islam to oppose fundamentalism.

The Challenges

LCP schools have been hailed by advocates such as James Tooley as the panacea for education in the developing world. Operating entirely under free market principles, such schools are encouraged because they provide, according to most international agencies, a way to “fix” education in the developing world and meet the Millennium Development Goals of Universal Primary Education and the Education For All aim. This view ignores the rampant violence and corruption that can result from unfettered market forces and citizens, who are unable to cooperate due to schooling or language differences.

In Pakistan, powerful ethnic and religious parties limit the impact of schools by reducing job opportunities. As evidenced in a 2008 case study, many out-of-school children, particularly boys, are not attending schools not for lack of access but because they believe the cost-benefit equation is not in their favor. Even if they go to school, they believe, they cannot bribe a political or ethnic connection to secure employment.

Documentation also suggests that LCP schools vary greatly in quality from each other, with more expensive schools having slightly better books and resources.

As Diane Ravitch suggests, in any market situation there will always be winners and losers. Many of the children who attend the poorest of LCP schools are in the same situation as a government school child with limited capability to improve their situation. If they come from an ethnic group that is persecuted, their chances are further limited.

Although there is evidence to suggest that test scores in LCP schools are better, possibly due to better teacher attendance and face-time, higher test scores do not necessarily result in better chances for children. As the developed world has learned, test scores do not necessarily correlate to better job opportunities and an equitable society.

Another major issue is the gender divide that low-cost private schools create. The LCP sector employs almost exclusively female staff, similar to the American system in the 1950s, because it pays lower wages while teaching is one of the few professions in which women are frequently allowed. Although this is a positive change, creating an environment where girls are safe to go to school and women are allowed to excel, it also limits opportunities for male employment.

In a case study in Karachi, survival rates for boys in secondary private schools were far lower than for women — potentially creating a sector that educated and then employed its own products with very little advancement in professions outside the school. This means that boys in poor areas will receive less education than girls, resulting in households with a lower overall incomes and many boys employed as young as eight or nine.

The gendered divide is slightly troubling because the madrassa sector employs almost exclusively male staff, although girls also attend. This could result eventually in the women of Pakistan largely excelling in “Western” academia, and a small but vocal group of men defending their “Islamic” values.

Although this is hyperbole, the fact that men are the religious authorities, with the odd exception such as Dr. Farhat Hashmi, means an Islam in Pakistan is allowed to exist largely devoid of female voices or scholars in the education sector. The situation for women in Pakistan is already fraught without the additional mantle of “Western instigators,” a very real issue especially with the presence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Ignoring Pakistan’s basic identity as a Muslim country, along with 200 years of conflict over what this actually means, is rather simplistic. Addressing the fact that the Deoband vs Aligarh trend could, if left unchecked, veer into a gender divide is a necessary conversation.

The Possibilities

Pakistan and its schools are not without hope, however. LCP schools could arguably lead the forefront of educational change if the government would begin regulating them with charters and grants, as they are regulated in many Western countries.

It is imperative that the Pakistani government takes a stand in terms of education rather than simply allowing the system to grow unchecked. Funding and regulation from the government, perhaps better nuanced than simply test scores, could result in a hybrid government/private system that could flourish and provide a more organic education for Pakistan’s children, thus reflecting local context while still allowing standardized education and systems. This could even encourage a more cohesive and thorough democratic system, the starry-eyed hope of many Western policymakers.

Furthermore, the Deoband vs Aligarh or Islamic education vs Western education could perhaps be addressed by the same system as it already is in places such as al-Fattah. The issue is that the Dars-i-Nizami curriculum used in many madrassas is the same as it was in the 19th century, while the conservative Islamic ideology of many Saudi-funded madrassas create a hotbed of fundamentalism.

In addition, the madrassas are a bastion of male voices without the input of female scholars or staff. LCP schools could help resolve this issue by encouraging their female staff to not only introduce Islamic Studies, but to do it in a comprehensive fashion with a curricular reformation led by Islamic thinkers who are both relevant and current while still being considered “moderate.”

Introducing a coherent Islamic curriculum, not an outdated one or simple Qur’anic memorization, could possibly pick up the threads of the reform initiated by the Aligarh Movement or by the Islamization movement of the 1960s in Malaysia. Rather than simply transplanting, as with the Gulan schools, it would behoove the Pakistani government to introduce thoughtful Islamic materials and resources developed for the Pakistani context rather than let their LCP schools attempt to balance the increasing extremism of the TTP without help.

Finally, in order to truly serve the children shouting out their alphabet in Pakistani LCP schools, introducing advocacy and political entrepreneurship initiatives would assist in giving the very poor the ability to organize and have a voice. As Stephen Kosack notes in his new book on education, governments are far more inclined to listen to voices when they are organized.

Without some kind of advocacy initiatives, the consistent top-down corruption that exists in Pakistan will continue unchecked, as will the ethnic politics and religious fundamentalism. In order to truly provide equitable education and employment opportunities, stabilize the country and the region, Pakistan needs to empower citizens who cannot speak to voice their own needs and better their own lives.

It is a testament to the people of Pakistan that children continue to walk to school every day despite bombs, fear mongering, and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. One can only hope that the lawmakers responsible for Pakistan’s development eventually see the value of providing quality schools for every child rather than paying lip service to the Millennium Development Goals, while ignoring the reality of Pakistan’s educational sector.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.  

Photo Credit: Gary Yim / Shutterstock.com


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