SDGs and Pakistan

WHY can’t over 22.8 Million Pakistani Young People Get Access to Quality Education? The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their Relevance to the Discourse of Quality Education in Postcolonial Pakistan (Part 3)

Introduction: Public, Private, Madrassa: Pakistan’s Fragmented Education System

This is part 3 of a series of blogs on the significant challenges in Pakistani education systems that are evidenced by that fact that more than 22 million young people of school-age do not attend school. In blog 1, I introduced Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state, while in blog 2, I discussed the challenges of access to education in Pakistan with reference to out-of-school children. In this blog, I discuss the fragmented education system in Pakistan. In doing so, I discuss the public education system, private schooling system and madrassa system to identify the impact this fragmentation has on the ability of all young Pakistani peoples to access quality education.

A teacher, Arif Hussain, with his students, outside a school building in an open space. The majestic beauty of the landscape deludes the observers about the hard living conditions the residents face.

Public-Schooling systems: Education for the Masses

Pakistan has three major schooling systems with stark gender, urban-rural, class and financial divide. The first of these three schooling systems is the public schools, which are state-run schools and follow government curriculum as well as the government prescribed textbooks by the provincial textbook boards. The data for 2017-18 indicates that there are around 225,100 public schools in Pakistan (see Figure 2) for grade 1 to grade 12. The total number of students enrolled in public schools is 53,850,000 (see Figure 3). As a result, each public school has an average of 141 students (see Figure 10). 

Public Schools. Data Source

The Federal Government develops the curriculum for these schools. This is despite, education being a provincial subject under the  18th amendment to the constitution in 2010, yet none of the provinces have developed their own educational curriculum. The provinces are still using the education curriculum of 2006, developed by the curriculum wing of Pakistan’s Federal Ministry of Education. Currently, Pakistan’s Federal Government is working on developing a single curriculum called Single National Curriculum (SNC), which I briefly discuss later in this blog. Based on the curriculum, the provincial textbooks board write textbooks involving content-experts. The experts who develop the curriculum and textbooks, usually, do not teach in schools, though some of them teach in colleges and universities. These officially written, printed, and disseminated textbooks are the sole resources for teachers and students at school levels in the context of public schools.

Number of students in public schools system. Data Source

There are 1,636,100 teachers in public sector schools (see Figure 5). Each school has an average of 6 teachers (see Figure 10), while there is one teacher for every 22 students (see Figure 10). Public school teachers are full-time government employees with handsome salaries, job security and post-retirement benefits. As the government employees, they also work as polling-officers during national, provincial or municipal elections.

Islamabad model school. Credit

Government teachers work as enumerators during population censuses and perform some other tasks, not directly related to schools. Throughout their career, many teachers also get training and professional development opportunities. Overall, most of the teachers are trained and qualified. In other instances, many public-school teachers are recruited without due regard for merit, qualification and training. In some cases, the appointments are politically motivated. The teaching practices in public schools are driven by assessment; teachers transmit knowledge from the textbooks and students memorise part of the content to reproduce in the examinations. These assessment-centric teaching practices result in focusing on the textbook content. The teaching and learning processes in the low-fee private schools (discussed later in this blog) are also similar in terms of teaching and learning practices. Still, their emphasis on learning English language skills makes them an attraction for many Pakistani parents and students. As a result, most of the teachers who teach in public schools, send their children to private schools, which is a tacit acknowledgement of the importance to English in the Pakistani education system.

Number of teachers in the public school system. Data Source

Private schools: institutionalising the privileges of English language

The second type of educational institution is private schools. The website of the association of Pakistan’s private schools called All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF) indicates there are 197,000 private schools in Pakistan. Private schools are established and run by individuals, groups of peoples or institutions, in most cases, for entrepreneurial purposes. Private schools follow different curricula systems and cater to the needs of different constituencies in society. Based on fees, curricula and institutional affiliation, there are different private schools, but we can broadly group them together into four categories.

Public and private schools in a glance.

The first category consists of those private schools which, despite substantial internal variations, can be bracketed together as low-fee private schools. These schools charge minimal fees which enable many parents to send their children to these schools. These low fee schools are the most numerous of all private schools and exist throughout the country. Most of the low-fee private schools follow the government curriculum, and some even teach government-printed textbooks. Whereas, others teach private organisations’ textbooks of the government curriculum or a combination of both. For example, many low-fee private schools teach the textbooks developed and printed by Oxford University Press (OUP) in Pakistan. Though OUP is a private entity in Pakistan, it develops textbooks based on the Pakistani curriculum, which many schools teach. Some private schools choose different textbooks or content from the different textbook boards as well as from private publishers. However, private schools which are affiliated with the public examination boards for Grades 5, 8, 9, 10, 11 and12 examination, teach the Pakistani curriculum. Majority of the low-fee private schools are affiliated with Federal or Provincial examination boards in Pakistan.

These low-fee private schools use English language as a medium of instruction. This emphasis on the English language makes these low-fee private schools a priority of middle-class families, who cannot send their children to the elite private schools for financial reasons.

Second, some government institutions and departments, i.e., armed forces, also establish, own and run private schools. The government subsidises these private schools of these government institutions. These schools provide low-fee education to the children of the employees of the affiliated institutions/departments and charge a full fee from others. The network of cadet schools and colleges of the armed forces are an example.

Pak-Turk Schools. Credit

Third, another category of the private schooling system is collectively called the elite private schools. These schools are elite in the sense they charge a very high fee, which, only the financial upper class can afford to pay. As a result, they are often located in the affluent areas of urban centres. To differentiate them from other private schools, and for lack of a better term, we may call them elite private schools. These schools follow Cambridge University’s curriculum for General Certificate of Education (GCE) and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), also called the Ordinary Level (O-level) and Advanced Level (A-level). Britain-based institutions take the examinations for these schools. Like the private schools of government institutions, these elite private schools consist of a chain and network of schools. 

The fourth category of private schools called Islami schools were established in, mostly, Karachi. These schools combined aspects of secular and religious education by combining O-level and A-level schooling along with components of madrassa education.

Private school teachers are not well-paid. Many of these schools hire graduates without any teaching experience or teacher training. Most private school teachers are those who are either in the process of applying or going for other better-paid jobs or relatively secure government jobs. As many private schools do not have a system of teachers training, so the teachers are never adequately trained. The private schools run under the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) are an exception; they have a robust teacher professional development programme. AKESP teachers receive ample opportunities for ongoing workplace professional development. Many of their teachers get a professional qualification from the prestigious Aga Khan University-Institute of Education Development (AKU-IED). The schools run by the AKESP, despite being private institutions, also stand out because their operations do not depend on the fee charged from students. Instead, community contributions, in different forms, contribute to the sustenance of these schools. This organisational and community support enables AKESP to provide quality education to the most neglected communities with limited fee (see Mir Shah). A key factor of quality in some of the AKES schools is their affiliation with the Aga Khan Examination Board, which has introduced a high-quality examination system in relation to the government curriculum and matriculation system.

Madrassa: Private religious schools

The third type of schooling is the madrassa (religious seminaries). These madaris (plural of madrassa) follow a scheme of religious education called Dars-e-Nizami, which Mulla Nizamuddin (d. 1748) had developed in 18th century South Asia, based on even older models of Muslim learning traditions. The madaris provide free education; many also offer free boarding and food to their students. The madaris based on their sectarian orientations are affiliated with any of the five madrassa boards:

  1. Wifaqul Madaris Al-Arabia Pakistan: This is the board with which the Deobandi madaris are affiliated, which are most numerous of all madrassa.
  2. Tanzeemul Madaris-e- Ahl-e-Sunnat, Pakistan. The Barelvi Madrassa are affiliated with this board.
  3. Wafaq ul Madaris al-Salafiya. The Salafi madrassa are affiliated with this board.
  4. Rabitatul Madaris. The madaris belonging to Jamat-e-Islami are affiliated with this board.  
  5. Wafaqul Madari Al-Shia Pakistan. The madaris belonging to Ithna Ashari Shi’ites are affiliated with this board.
Deobandi Madrassa in Pakistan. Data source

The madrassa boards are non-government institutions which decide the madrassa curriculum for their affiliated madrassa, conduct examinations and issue degrees/certificates to the graduates of their respective madaris. The numbers of madaris in Pakistan have been estimated to be around 32,000 to 60,000, with an estimated number of students to be around 2.5 million. The website of Wifaqul Madaris al-Arabia Pakistan, which is the board of Deobandi madrassa claims to have 21,565 madrassa affiliated with it (see Figure 8). The confusion with regard to the number of madrassa and its students arises because of the mode of enrolment and education. There are madaris where students are full-time enrolled and who also board in its hostels, these students do not attend any other schools except madrassa. Another type of madrassa is one where students attend in the after-school hours. This is because the same students attend public or private schools in the first half of the day and attend madrassa in the second half. There are some madaris, which work on weekends. Some madaris consist of large complexes, others modest buildings, while some use mosque premises as a madrassa. Some graduates of madrassa, particularly females, convene madrassa classes in their own homes, which some students of the neighbourhood attend.

Entrance to Jamia Darul Ulum Karachi complex. Credit

Like the elite private schools, the madaris are independent of the government influences concerning the administration, curriculum, policy-making, and examination. The advocates of madrassa education consider these madaris the custodians of traditional religious knowledge and have consistently resisted government influence and modernisation efforts.

Student teacher and school ratio
A school building constructed in 1889 in Rawalpindi is still in use. Credit

This ‘fragmented’ education system is a complex outcome of Pakistan’s precolonial, colonial and postcolonial histories and legacies. These legacies have significant consequences for ‘development’ more broadly, and for delivering on the ‘promise’ of quality education for all. In the next blog, I will discuss the impact of this fragmented education system on the ability of many young Pakistanis’ to access quality education.


By Sher Rahmat Khan

PhD Student at the RMIT School of Education

2 replies on “WHY can’t over 22.8 Million Pakistani Young People Get Access to Quality Education? The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their Relevance to the Discourse of Quality Education in Postcolonial Pakistan (Part 3)”

This article comprehensively outlines three tiers of education systems in Pakistan which are, simultaneously, the product, as well as produce, fragmentation in the societal structures. This continuation of the colonial education system is further creating and widening a schism within the country on the lines of gender, region, rural/urban, financial position, geographic location, and so on. This also problematizes the relation of teachers’ qualification and training with the quality of education, for instance, the teachers of public schools and AKESP are comparatively better qualified and trained but there is a significant difference in the quality of both. This gives an insight into a model of schools based on the assemblage of secular and religious practices and other types of formal/informal, full-time/part-time, and flexible religious schools/madrassahs. Anyway, this is overall a well-researched and well-articulated article, and I would love to read the next part that delineates its impact on education quality.


[…] support, and the digital divide contributed to young people’s poor education performance. In blog 3, I explained how the fragmentation of the three different education systems (public education […]


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