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 4)


Drawing on my Ph.D. thesis, I have written a series of blogs on the challenges of access to quality education for young Pakistani. In blog 1, I provided a brief introduction to Pakistan’s emergence as a postcolonial nation-state and how this played a role in developing its education system. In blog 2, I discussed how colonial legacies, poverty and a lack of government support, militancy and displacement, a lack of parental 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 system, private schooling system, and madrassa system) impacted young Pakistani’s access to quality education. This blog further discusses how the fragmented education system produces graduates with varying sets of skills, knowledge, political and religious orientations, and their implications for access to quality education.

Fragmented Schooling Systems in Pakistan.

The different schooling systems, including the division of public and private schools, are a

global phenomenon. For example, countries in South Asia have private and public schools. Some of these private schools received funding from the World Bank. Given the public sector’s capacity, private schools contribute to all the major sectors in Pakistan. However, improving the quality of education provided in the state-run schools will contribute towards improving the quality of life of the general populace and lessen the impact of fragmented schooling on creating social inequities. This requires the state’s intervention aimed at improving the quality of education in the public education sector. Quality education drawing on UNICEF’s definitions can be understood as learning processes facilitated/conducted in a safe and enabling environment, through trained and well-qualified teachers, and with the help of content that is meaningful and relevant to the experience of the child. This also means that the educion policies and processes take into consideration knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

The different schooling systems have implications for access to quality education. This is because these education/schooling systems produce and reproduce different subjectivities and play a role in producing/effecting power-relations in society. The different education systems in Pakistan have different histories, origins, and different purposes/ideologies. As a result, they produce graduates with varying outlooks about the world and individual’s place in it.


The three schooling systems are based on different educational discourses. They strive for producing different truth-claims, knowledge and skills. These discourses inform the perception and conduct of the individuals, which in turn reproduces these discourses.


Public Schools: Producing Factory Model School students

Issues of educational quality with regard to the public schools are at the heart of this fragmented

education system and its implication for broader society. A report based on data from rural areas of Pakistan, published by a citizen-led initiative called Annual Status of Education (ASER) in 2019, found that around 9% of grade 5 students in the public schools could not read, only 27% of grade 5 students could read sentence, and 41% of grade 5 students could not read a story from a Grade 2 textbook. This is despite the fact that the public schools put a heavy emphasis on reading and memorisation of the textbook content.  

A related challenge and a key factor with regard to issues of educational quality are the examination-centric public schooling system. Pakistani educational practices in public schools are examination-centric, where examinations and assessments inform classroom practice. At the same time, attitudes, skills, and dispositions are not appropriately covered. In such a context, private tutorial assistance is available to those students who can afford to pay. Many parents hire tutors to help their children in mastering the content of the texts. These tutors provide academic assistance to the students in after-school hours. This tutorial assistance gives these students an edge over other students who cannot afford to hire a private tutor.

The Pakistani public school system has its origin in the British colonialism of South Asia. The colonial masters wanted an education system for the local people to produce low-grade officials to work in offices, often designated as clerks. A clerical job requires listening to the instructions and carrying out the specific-assigned duty following routinised system.This education system is suited for industrial era; as it emphasises on memorisation of a chunk of information, ability to do a routinised job, and often unquestioned submission to authority. The 21st century education, instead of memorisation of information, aims to promote questioning, striving to find creative alternatives for day to day problem, and thus challenging established authorities (of ideas and people).

A public school classroom teacher in progress. Credit

This unquestioned acceptance of the text is aimed at producing an obedient subject. But it compromises on other important skills such as questioning, looking for an alternative perspective and engaging with difference. As a result, this system has implications for engaging with diversity. The emphasis on a single perspective at the cost of others is likely to instil a feeling in the student about diversity being abnormal and in need of correction. The intolerance towards being different and thinking different is a manifestation of this emphasis on unification and singular perspective.

A Private school classroom. Credit

Private Schools: Producing the English Speaking Subjects

To what extent the elite private schools strive to cultivate skills related to critical thinking and innovation is a matter of question. However, the emphasis on learning English language skills gives an elevated status to these elite private schools. The low quality of public schools, coupled with the private school’s emphasis on the English language, maintains elite public schools’ educational hegemony in Pakistan. In doing so, this fragmented system contributes towards maintaining the socio-political hegemony of the alumni of these elite private schools. In this way, education becomes a tool to exercise power and effect power-relations.


These private schools have got a role in conserving aspects of the Western lifestyle in Pakistan. In doing so, they socialise selected Pakistani youth in such a lifestyle and reproduce Western cultural elements. In this way, they are the sites where Pakistan’s economic, political and bureaucratic elites are produced and reproduced. Ironically, these elites-private school graduate elites decided why public schools should be different from elite private schools. The elite private schools help in maintaining the status quo and maintain hierarchical relationships by confining these privileges to the few. In doing so, they become a site and tool of effecting power-relations. They also reproduce and strengthen the neoliberal notions of financial-ability-driven access to better education.

This is an add for selling a school in Pakistan. The ad in Urdu reads: “Iqra School, with students and furniture, for sale.” Credit: Facebook

Madrassa: Producing-sect-specific religious subjectivities

The madaris (plural of madrassa) are a bastion of religious conservatism. These aim to provide religious education, preserve religious literature, curriculum, and traditional pedagogies. The keyword in this sentence is tradition/traditional. This word rightly captures madrassa’s priority, its graduates’ social outlook and its vision for society. In other words, the madrassa aims to produce identities based on a particular interpretation of religious texts and tradition and by preserving a particular form of lifestyle. It is noteworthy that through these students, madrassa aim to reconstitute society on religious-sectarian lines. Madrassa becomes a site of a reproduction of sectarian-content-based religious identities, gender segregation, traditional cultural norms and practices. In doing so, the madrassa envisions a dual role for their students: First, they aim to discipline these students through the appropriation of a particular understanding of religious tradition and by transforming their own public lives and attitudes in keeping with that understanding. Second, these students become mediums/agents/ of transforming the entire society into a particular interpretation and practice. In doing so, the madrassa becomes a disciplinary exercise and a tool of governmentality. The madrassa also become a site of an ambivalent relationship with the modern. For example, madaris present themselves an alternative to modern secular education, at the same time through the state, madrassa have obtained the right to get an equivalence for their own highest degree as Masters in Arts in Islamic Studies awarded by the universities in Pakistan.

A Madrassa classroom. Credit

In South Asia, the tensions between madrassa and secular educational institutions can be traced to the colonial era. However, overall, the tensions between the two systems are much older than the colonial era. This is reflected by a number of Muslim theologians delivering religious-legal edicts (fatwa) against studying the secular sciences (including mathematics and philosophy). For example, an Indian Muslim theologian Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624) issued a fatwa (religious-legal edict) declaring the study of mathematics and secular sciences “to be forbidden” (haram). Shah Waliullah Dehalvi, another influential Muslim theologian, played one of the key roles in popularising and consolidating the manqulat tradition (transmitted/religious sciences) through his madrassa called Rahimia.

Historically speaking, the madaris have a tradition of over a thousand years, though its contemporary form changed over time. The madaris in South Asia were particularly transformed during the colonial era when they borrowed the administrative structures, the concept of a fixed curriculum, centralised control, and emphasis on examinations from secular-colonial education. The madaris, however, retained their traditional Muslim content of learning.


In this blog, I discussed how the three education/schooling systems in Pakistan produce different subjects. In doing so, I argued that because of the different historical trajectories of these systems and their different ideological orientations, the graduates of these schooling systems have tremendously different views of the world and society. In the next blog, I conclude this blog series. In doing so, I discuss the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their relevance for addressing Pakistan’s challenges of access to quality education


By Sher Rahmat Khan

PhD Student at the RMIT School of Education

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