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

SDGs and Pakistan

Quality Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Part 4


In the series of blogs, I explored the challenges of Pakistan concerning development and education, and the prospects and limits of the SDGs in understanding and addressing the challenges. The previous blog (part 3) highlighted some key priorities of the Aga Khan schools in Chitral, Pakistan, dealing with SDG 4 (quality education), including the targets for access, early childhood development, gender equality, and quality education. In this blog, I discuss three enrichment programs (PrISM Curriculum, Middle School Program, and International School Award) being implemented in the Aga Khan schools that bring global perspectives to education in Chitral’s local context. An enrichment program refers to school activities to extend student learning beyond their main course of study. I argue that these programs contribute to improving the quality of education at the Aga Khan schools by bringing awareness and understanding of the various SDGs, including the goals for health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), and environment (SDG 13, 14, and 15). In doing so, I articulate how these programs contribute to the SDG agenda, which guides this series of blogs.

Education in Aga Khan schools: enrichment programs and the SDGs

­The Aga Khan schools in Pakistan follow the National Curriculum of Pakistan. In Pakistan, textbooks are the most commonly used resources for curriculum implementation. Curricular programs taught in both public and private schools in Pakistan promote rote-learning, with little emphasis on promoting critical thinking skills among students. The assessment system drives the teaching and learning practices; teachers teach students to pass the examinations. There are 32 education boards in Pakistan administering tests at the secondary (IX-X) and higher secondary (XI-XII) levels. Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB) is the only private sector Pakistan-based board established in 2003 to enhance education standards. As compared to the other boards, the AKU-EB examinations focus on assessing conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Critical thinking is an ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking and think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas.

Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) plans to affiliate its schools with the AKU-EB to enhance their achievement standards. So far, 6 schools in Chitral (out of the 21 high and higher secondary schools) have successfully switched to AKU-EB, 15 are with the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education Peshawar for examinations.

To supplement the curriculum, the Aga Khan schools implement different enrichment programs. Below, I look at three enrichment programs that bring global dimensions to education and enrich student learning. These programs include the Personal, Intellectual, Social, and Moral (PrISM) curriculum, Middle School Program (MSP), and International School Award (ISA).

PrISM Curriculum

AKESP developed an enrichment program titled PrISM curriculum for the holistic development of children. Under this program, different activities are integrated with subject areas to develop various aspects of personal, intellectual, social, and moral development. The program also incorporates the Aga Khan Academies Curricular Strands, including ethics, pluralism, respect for cultures, particularly the contributions of Muslim civilisations, the importance of governance and civil society, and an understanding of economics for development. These strands are core components of the Aga Khan Academies being established in the developing world, in African and Asian countries. The academies are part of AKES, intending to develop future leaders who can build their respective societies. These five areas are integrated into the PrISM curriculum as cross-cutting themes in personal, intellectual, social, and moral developmental areas (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Integration of AK strands in PrISM (AKESP 2016, p. 7)

The program is implemented in the classrooms integrating with the relevant themes of core subject areas from Year III-XII.  Promoting pluralism is a crucial feature of the PrISM curriculum. His Highness, the Aga Khan, has articulated the concept in the following manner:

Developing support for pluralism does not occur naturally in human society. It is a concept which must be nurtured every day, in every forum – in large and small government and private institutions; in civil society organisations working in the arts, culture, and public affairs, in the media; in the law, and in justice – particularly in terms of social justice, such as health, social safety nets and education; and in economic justice, such as employment opportunities and access to financial services. (Aga Khan, 2010)

Due to this emphasis, the schools try to develop pluralistic values among the students. One of the school heads relates that the PrISM activities provide ample opportunities for students to reflect on several important values and skills. She notes:

The PrISM helps students develop a positive disposition towards learning and prepares them for the future. The activities help students visualise how the future will be for them as global citizens. Students come from different backgrounds and are diverse in their gender, ability, culture, and religious values. For instance, students involved with the PrISM program respect diversity, culture, faiths, traditions, and individual personalities. (School head 1, personal communication).

This indicates that the Aga Khan schools make conscious efforts to promote pluralistic values among the students.

Students of Aga Khan school working in groups (source)

One of the education leaders who participated in my research project equates PrISM with the concept of training and upbringing, what he calls tarbiat in the Urdu language. He works in a field office of AKEP and is responsible for supporting 20 Aga Khan schools in Chitral. He states: 

PrISM focuses on one of the crucial aspects of education, what we call tarbiat. For me, education without proper tarbiat is worthless. We concentrate on  student holistic development through this curriculum – ethical, social, intellectual, and moral. (Education leader 1, personal communication)

School leaders interviewed in my study felt that the program has a significant impact on students. One notes:

I receive positive reflections from the students. They find the program relevant and useful. Students actively participate in the activities. For instance, a group of students drew a family and had a powerful presentation of the local cultural values. In reflection, they wrote about their life, what type of environment they grew up in, their background, and how local communities live. Teachers sit with them to discuss the reflections. (School head 3, personal communication)

From above, it is evident that teachers and students try to contextualise the learning process by bringing in activities/examples from their daily lives.

The overview of the activities of the PrISM curriculum shows that they contribute to “Education for sustainable development and global citizenship” (target 4.7) that focuses on acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and nonviolence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development. As an education leader working at the AKESP office states:

PrISM covers themes like sustainable development, human rights, gender equity, global citizenship, cultural diversity, and pluralism -universal ideas to promote peaceful citizenship nationally and globally. Pluralism is among the significant components of AKDN development philosophy. Our schools embrace diversity in its true spirit – not only respecting differences but also valuing them. (Educational leader 2, personal communication)

PrISM’s activities address ‘education for sustainable development,’ a transformative target of the SDG 4. The activities enable the learners to make informed decisions and take actions for sustainable development.  

Middle School Program (MSP)

AKESP collaborates with the AKU-EB to implement the Middle School Program (MSP) in the Aga Khan schools. The MSP is a project-based experiential form of learning that emphasises interdisciplinary learning by applying knowledge in real-world situations. The MSP is rolled out in Years VI to VIII  integrating across key curricular areas such as English, Science, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Urdu to develop 21st-century skills. The term 21st-century skills refer to a broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that are considered critically important for student success in education and beyond school life in careers and workplaces. It aims to bridge gaps in the existing curriculum, which is predominantly knowledge driven. Through MSP, schools aim to develop 21st-century skills among students to prepare them for success in the Year IX-X and Year XI-XII examinations and build life skills.

MSP mainly focuses on developing competencies such as Creativity and Innovation, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Interpersonal Skills and Teamwork. These skills can be categorised into three categories: learning skills, literacy skills, and life skills, as shown in Figure 2 below:

Figure 2: Three categories of 21st-century skills: source

The MSP serves as a bridging program to prepare the Aga Khan school students for the AKU-EB examinations. As indicated in the earlier section, the assessment practices of AKU-EB are more conceptual and involves critical thinking. AKU-EB exemplifies an indigenous educational movement, emphasising concept-based learning and a conscious rejection of rote memorisation that plagues many Pakistani schools today.

The Aga Khan schools implementing MSP speak high of the program. A school head of an Aga Khan school comments on the program:

MSP is project-based learning. Students are engaged in practical work. They are involved in projects and carry out creative work. The activities focus on 21st-century skills like communication, collaboration, leadership skills, etc. (School head 1, personal communication)

The comments indicate that the program activities allow students to go beyond textbooks and learn essential skills. Another school head describes how the MSP prepares schools to improve quality. He highlights the challenges related to enhancing the quality and meeting the AKU-EB standards. He comments:

Moving to AKU-EB will have a significant impact on the quality of education in our schools. It is a considerable shift for us. We must ensure a provision of good quality teachers, regular professional support, supervision. Also, it requires a close working of teachers, parents, students, and home to prepare the students to meet the required standards. But we cannot force schools to switch to AKU-EB haphazardly without allowing them to improve in quality. We recently experienced a disastrous situation, where we affiliated some of our schools with AKU-EB, and the students badly failed to produce good results. MSP has helped start the process in an early stage (School head 2, personal communication).

In short, the MSP program is expected to develop 21st-century skills among students and enable Aga Khan schools to meet the AKU-EB’s assessment standard. The school head mentioned several problems with the transition, the key being “good quality teachers.” MSP contributes to SDG 4, among others, by developing 21st-century skills among the students.

International School Award (ISA)

The AKESP collaborates with the British Council (BC) Pakistan to implement the International School Award (ISA) in Aga Khan Schools. The BC is an international organisation of the United Kingdom working for promoting cultural and educational opportunities across 100 countries and has been working in Pakistan since 1948. The award program helps schools enrich learning and teaching by introducing international education into the curriculum and embedding it with the school culture. The activities include projects focusing on the SDGs and collaboration with other schools nationally and internationally.

International School Award logo source

The Aga Khan schoolteachers receive training through BC Pakistan on integrating the SDGs with the curriculum and instruction. The activities mainly address the goals for health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), and environment (SDG 13, 14, and 15).  The components of the ISA are shown in Table 1:

Embedding International Work
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)Young people and educators build an awareness of SDGs, which countries adopted on 25 Sep 2015, in a bid to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.
• Schools to run activities that introduce the SDGs to young people
• Young people share information about their local context with partner schools
• Educators identify a need to introduce an SDG in teaching and learning
­­Enriching EducationEducators build awareness of practices in other schools
• Educators identify priority areas of practice and introduce an SDG which is linked with it
• Educators share information about education practices with their partner schools
International School EthosSchools embed their international work into their environment
• Schools review their international activity and assess the development of young people and educators
• Schools commit more resources to their international coordinator and international policy
• Schools carry out more activities with their partner schools
Table 1: Components of the ISA (source)

The school heads who took part in my research project repeatedly mentioned ISA as an essential project. One school head comments:

Our students are doing different activities on the SDGs. There are various topics/themes related to various SDGs. For example, suppose a theme is an environment or plantation; it is integrated into the teaching of science.. Students then share their work with other students in the partner schools nationally and internationally. For instance, one class was learning the Sindhi language from a school in Sindh province on Skype. In another exercise, students worked on the theme of human rights; they arranged a wall in the school and displayed their ideas about their role in creating awareness about human rights. Also, they showed a variety of pictures and quotes from/ about the people who contributed to human rights. A large number of parents participated in the event. (School head 1, personal communication)

It is evident from above that through participating in ISA, the Aga Khan schools develop partnerships with other schools and learn from each other’s experiences. Another school head argues that the program’s activities enhance student learning experiences about the global SDGs framework. Responding to a question about the relevance of the SDGs to the school context, he  comments:

All the 17 goals are relevant. Many of the themes stressed in the SDGs need to be pursued in schools. AKESP’s priorities and the SDGs, specifically SDG 4 targets, are similar…We all need to follow the SDGs and deliver to the plan as much as possible (School head 2, personal communication).

It is evident that the schools take ownership of the program considering the activities relevant to enhancing student learning.

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Aga Khan schools win International School Awards: source


In this blog, I examined how the ISA, MSP, and PrISM programs contribute to student learning, bringing international dimensions to their knowledge in the local context. Through these programs, the Aga Khan schools create awareness and sensitivity among students about global issues that constitute the SDGs agenda.  Howeverer, the SDGs are not the only framework that guides the development agenda withing AKDN. AKDN’s own development approach is a much broader that that thoroughly covers various aspects of SDGs, particularly SDG 4.

While the SDGs offer useful insights and provide a framework for action in the postcolonial context of Pakistan. As such, the agenda seems to be limited in providing a genuinely transformative plan. As a result, since the inception of the SDGs, Pakistan’s performance has consistently deteriorated over time. Pakistan ranked 115th in 2016, 117th in 2017, 122nd in 2018, 130th in 2019. According to the latest Human Development Report 2020, Pakistan ranks 154th out of the 189 countries. In education, UNESCO’s projections suggest that in Pakistan one in four children will not be completing primary school by the deadline of 2030.

In the next series of blogs, I will be looking at educational leadership and the agenda for quality and inclusive education at the Aga Khan schools in Chitral, Pakistan.

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.

SDGs and Pakistan

Quality and Inclusive Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

                                                         Part 3


In the previous blog (part 2), I introduced the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). I looked at its contributions to development and education in Pakistan with a particular reference to the Aga Khan Schools operated by the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) in remote and underserved regions such as Chitral.

In this blog, drawing on the data from my PhD research project, I discuss some of the priorities of the Aga Khan Schools for educational development in Chitral in particular, and Pakistan in general. In doing so, I analyse how the Aga Khan Schools’ efforts contribute to the Education 2030 agenda articulated in SDG 4, aiming to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

SDG 4 targets: source

Aga Khan Schools in Chitral: priorities for education development, and the SDG 4

The mission of AKESP is “to enable many generations of students to acquire both knowledge and the essential spiritual wisdom needed to balance that knowledge and enable their lives to attain the highest fulfillment. Within this faith-inspired vision for educational development, the students are expected to use knowledge/education to improve their standard of life and that of the community and the wider society.

With the core purpose of “reaching out to inspire better lives,” the Aga Khan Schools  offer quality education, in line with  the AKESP  vision –  “a dynamic learning organisation achieving excellence.” The education in these schools contributes to AKDN’s broader goal of improving the quality of life of individuals and their communities. I have previously discussed that within AKDN, quality of life and education goes beyond the neoliberal logic of economic benefits to embrace a broad approach to life (see part 2). In their educational endeavours, the schools are encouraged to follow distinct values such as “respect, fairness, integrity, passion, rigor and creativity.” These schools aim to produce young people who are ”confident, critically conscious, creative, lifelong learners, who are active and ethical citizens for the pluralist world.”

Mission, vision and core purpose display in an Aga Khan School in Chitral 

With these objectives and values in mind, AKESP sets priorities for education at organisational levels for the network of Aga Khan Schools. These priorities shape the programs and practices of all schools. The schools in Chitral initially addressed the acute need for girls’ education and then broadened their focus to education for all. One of the Aga Khan School heads, who took part in my research project, indicates the schools’ evolving priorities over time:

AKESP started with a few primary schools, specifically for girls’ education. Over time, the organisational priorities expanded from sole girls’ education to quality education for all girls and boys. At present, both girls and boys get an education at a ratio of 50:50. Girls’ education remains the primary concern. After taking in all the girls, the schools offer boys admission up to 50% of the schools’ total enrolment, but not at girls’ expense. (School head 1, personal communication, Aug 5, 2019).

Aga Khan School in a remote valley in Chitral

As this discussion illustrates, gender equity has always been a concern and a priority for Aga Khan schools. The organisational policies (e.g., the school equity policy) direct the schools to ensure “equitable access to girls and boys” and to “eliminate gender discrimination by promoting gender equity [through] all the programs, practices and procedures” (School policy document, 2016, p. 45). AKESP’s practices have led to a shift in parental attitudes over recent decades. There is some degree of increased acceptance of the importance of girls’ education in the community. However, some schools still face issues from parents with regard to their gender equity practices. The broader cultural norms in Chitral, like the broader cultural context in Pakistan, favour boys as compared to their female siblings. Boys enjoy more autonomy and privileges, whether it is ownership of family property or investment in access to quality education. One of the school heads notes:

Despite decades of community mobilisation campaigns of the AKDN institutions, we face issues from the community. Many parents challenge me, arguing for boys’ admission. In this culture, boys are the breadwinners, while girls marry and leave their parents. If I compromise on the admission policy, the school will turn into a boys’ school. (School head 3, personal communication, Aug 26, 2019)

To tackle the issue, the Aga Khan Schools put girls’ admission at the forefront.  One school head argues that preferencing girls is a strategy to ensure gender equity/equality. In the absence of such stringent practices, the social and cultural norms in communities would marginalise girls:   

For me,  increasing girls’ education is equated to gender equity. AKESP’s efforts that started back in the 1980s are continuing, targeting to bring more girls to school; otherwise, we cannot ensure gender equality. (School head 2, personal communication, Aug 23, 2019)

Girl students in an Aga Khan School : source

AKESP’s gender equity practices address target 4.5 of the SDG 4, which aims to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.” This blog is addressing SDG 4, but it is important to acknowledge here that it is the SDG 5, which dedicatedly addresses gender equality.

Another of the Aga Khan Schools’ key features is focusing on early childhood education and development (ECED). The schools provide an inclusive environment for learning and development to children from the age of three within the school premises. In some cases, the schools make alternate arrangements for ECED closer to the communities known as satellite campuses. At the national level, AKESP runs a three-year pre-primary program: pre-primary I, II, and III, for the students aged 2– 3, 3 – 4, and 4–5, respectively. In the Chitral region, the schools run a two-year pre-primary program, pre-primary II and III, for children aged 3 to 5. Running pre-primary I is not feasible because children aged 2 – 3 cannot access schools due to the rugged terrain and harsh weather conditions.

The emphasis on ECED is based on recognising that the early years are critical for children’s development. The inspiration for ECED primarily comes from His Highness, the Aga Khan himself, as one of the school heads argues:

More than 75% of a child’s brain development occurs at an early age. The Imam himself repeatedly urged for ECED. He advised his followers about its importance during his last visit to Chitral. In his role as the spiritual leader, the Imam could have talked about many theological matters, which are fundamental in faith. Yet, he spoke about education, emphasising quality education, and especially the ECED. (School head 3, personal communication, Aug 23, 2019)

A school head working in a remote valley of Upper Chitral describes the importance of ECED:

The early age is a crucial period for the children for their learning and overall development. Therefore, the organisation invests a lot in providing resources, both human and materials. Our long-term goal is to provide ECED access to 100% of the children in our target communities. A huge target to achieve only through the Aga Khan Schools. Therefore, we work with other AKDN agencies, the communities, and other civil society organisations. (School head 1, personal communication, Aug 28, 2019)

A teacher facilitating pre-primary students: source

Aga Khan Schools in Pakistan have two key goals focused on ECED experiences. These include preparing early-year students for a smooth transition to the next level and increasing access to quality education. The ECED practices of AKESP directly address target 4.2 of the  SDG 4, “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”

One of the crucial reasons why many children, particularly girls, cannot access education in many rural areas in Pakistan is a lack of schools. However, in Chitral, public and private schools have seen significant growth during recent decades. As a result, the primary focus of the Aga Khan Schools has recently shifted to ensuring quality and inclusive education. A school head states:

Access to school is not an issue at present. The real problem now is the quality of education the schools offer. Our schools now strive to provide quality education. We need to equip students with such an education to cope with the complexities of the 21st-century. The school’s mission and vision [pointing at the display board] define our aspirations very clearly. (School head 3, personal communication, Aug 23, 2019)

Aga Khan School in a remote village in Chitral: source

For improving the quality of education, the AKESP continues to focus on inducting quality teachers and school heads and on their continuing professional development. Concurrently, the organisation strengthens support mechanisms to schools and has been upgrading infrastructure and teaching resources, including Information and Communication Technologies(ICT). Due to these developments/improvements, the Aga Khan Schools continued to facilitate student learning through various remote learning programs during the pandemic in most schools in the remote valleys of Chitral and the nearby region of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

In this blog I looked at some of the organisational priories for Aga Khan Schools and their relevance to SDG 4. In the next blog, I will discuss some of the enrichment programs that aim to address certain goals, bringing a particular global perspective to education trends into the local context. In doing so, I articulate how these programs contribute to the SDG agenda which guides this series of blogs.

SDGs and Pakistan

Postcolonial Pakistan and the Promise of Quality and Inclusive Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(Part 2)

Economic development… is certainly critical…Without doubt growth plays a central role in the increasing of human welfare and the dignity of life. But other dimensions and challenges to development play at least an equally important role. Unfortunately, many of them are not easily measured in conventional economic terms, nor addressed through usual economic programmes and policies. (Aga Khan IV 2003)


In the previous blog (Part 1), I introduced Pakistan as a postcolonial state, and shed light on some of its prevailing challenges with reference to contemporary discourse on development and the SDGs as the global framework. In this blog, I concentrate on introducing the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – its history, development approach, and contribution to development and education in Pakistan and particularly to some of the remote and underserved regions such as Chitral.

AKDN: history and development approach

AKDN – a network of development agencies, was founded and is led by His Highness the Aga Khan IV – the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. The Shia-Sunni split within Muslims occurred after the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over the issue of his succession. Within the Shia interpretation of Islam, Imamat (religious-spiritual leadership) is a fundamental concept that started from Ali – a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Over the years, the Shia community divided over the question of the rightfulness of their Imams. Ismailis are the second-largest Shia denomination with an eventful history and currently reside in over 25 countries. Since 1957, His Highness the Aga Khan IV has been leading this transnational Ismaili community whose population is estimated to be around 15 million.

As part of the mandate, the Imam not only interprets matters of faith but also accepts a responsibility to help improve the quality of life in his followers (the Ismaili community) and in societies among which the community lives (see AKF 2020). In this context, the Ismaili Imams have historically contributed to the development of faith as well as material development- din and dunia as the Aga Khan himself notes:

This engagement has been grounded in my responsibilities as Imam of the Shia Ismaili Community, and Islam’s message of the fundamental unity of “din and dunia”, of spirit and of life.  Throughout its long history, the Ismaili Imamat has emphasised the importance of activities that reflect the social conscience of Islam, that contribute to the well being of Allah’s greatest creation – mankind, and the responsibility which Islam places on the fortunate and the strong to assist those less fortunate. (Aga Khan IV 2003)

In this context, establishing modern institutions for development is rooted in the Ismaili Imamat’s efforts to address issues of the social and economic welfare of its marginalised community in 19th-century India (see Karim 2011). During this time, Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah, the Aga Khan III (the 48th Imam), emerged as an influential national and international leader. He represented India in 1932 at the League of Nations – the predecessor of the United Nations – and he also served as president of the League for a brief period.

Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah, Aga Khan III: source

Aga Khan III played a key role in the political struggle of South Asian Muslims. He was instrumental in many political and educational efforts for the development of the Muslim communities. For instance, he was actively involved in the Aligarh Movement which advocated a modern system of education for Muslims, resulting in the creation of Aligarh Muslim University. Aga Khan III was a founding member and the first president of the All-India Muslim League (1906 –1912) and among the Muslim leaders who founded Pakistan as a separate state through the platform the Muslim League.

Pakistan First Day Cover issued for Aga Khan III’s birth centenary on November 2, 1977: source

For the Ismailis in particular, his leadership was a period of significant modernisation and development. From the beginning of the 20th century, he established several institutions for the educational and economic development of the community in Asian and African countries. His successor, Shah Karim Al-Husseini, the Aga Khan IV built upon his work, and this eventually consolidated as a network of institutions and agencies under the banner of the Aga Khan Development Network in 1967.

Shah Karim Al-Hosseini, Aga Khan IV: IV: source

The overall goal of the AKDN is to improve the quality of life of the people in the countries and regions that it serves.  This goal goes beyond economic growth to address social and cultural development. Consequently, the AKDN has established an extensive network of agencies to address wide-ranging issues in the fields of education, health, culture, rural development, institution-building, tourism, architecture innovation, and promotion of economic development for improving living conditions and opportunities for some of the poor and underserved communities in Asia and African countries. The key components of the AKDN, and their complementarity, are shown in the diagram (figure) below:

AKDN organigramme: source

AKDN claims to have a  holistic and comprehensive development approach. This philosophy goes beyond material benefits/ poverty alleviation to address a more rounded view of human experience and aspirations. For AKDN, quality of life  “encompasses improvements in material standards of living, health and education and a set of values and norms which include pluralism and cultural tolerance, gender and social equity, civil society organisation and good governance” (see AKF 2020).  Each of its component organisations has its specific mandate, but they collaborate to achieve mutual goals in line with the conviction that “ successful development occurs when a continuum of development activities offers people in a given area not only a rise in incomes but a broad, sustained improvement in the overall quality of life” (See AKF 2020). Therefore, AKDN adopts a long-term approach and commitment to community development. To maximise the impact and sustain its development work, AKDN works closely with communities on the principle that “development is sustainable only if the beneficiaries become, in a gradual manner, the masters of the process” (Aga Khan 2002).

To address its broader development agenda, AKDN introduced the Multi-Input Area Development (MIAD) approach in which its various agencies integrate their activities intending to maximise the impact of interventions. This integrated approach contributes to sustainable improvement in the quality of life of the targeted communities through complementary social, economic, and cultural interventions. Over the years, the institutions of AKDN expanded in terms of institutions as well as global reach. Today AKDN  is one of the largest development agencies, working in over 30 countries, with 96,000 employees and with an annual budget of US$1,000 million (see AKF 2020).

Logos of AKDN and its agencies: image credit

AKDN claims that it does not limit its work to a particular community, country, or region, rather focuses on poor and underserved areas of the developing world (see AKF 2020). The Aga Khan (2005) notes “it [AKDN] is rooted in the ethics of our faith, and serves all the populations we seek to support, without regard to gender, race or faith”. Similarly, the employees of AKDN are from different faiths, origins, and backgrounds and a large number of them are non-Ismailis; “the fulcrum of the Network’s activities, however, remains the Ismaili Community – its traditions of volunteer service, self-reliance, generosity and the leadership of the hereditary Imam” (see AKDN 2007). The Ismaili community plays a major role in supporting and sustaining the work of the AKDN. At the same time, in many places – such as Pakistan – the Ismaili community is the major beneficiary of its work as well. 

AKDN and Education in Pakistan

Education constitutes a major focus of the AKDN’s development agenda. In the present era of neoliberal globalisation, development and education agendas are dominated by neoliberal rationalities/logic. Neoliberal globalisation is an economic model emphasising ‘free markets’ and ‘free trade’ decreased governmental regulation, privatisation, reduced government expenditure, and the lowering of barriers to international trade and investment (see Sniegocki 2008). This has resulted in the ‘economisation of education’ as well; where the goals of education are reduced to sole economic growth and increased productivity. From the postcolonial perspective, the increasing trend of neoliberal globalisation dominated by Eurocentrism calls for counter epistemologies. In this context, the discourse/narrative of Aga Khan IV on development and education, influencing the policies and practices of the AKDN institutions, provides an alternative perspective. Aga Khan IV specifies the purpose of education:

­World and faith are inseparable in Islam. Faith and learning are also profoundly interconnected. The Holy Qur’an sees the discovery of knowledge as a spiritual responsibility, enabling us to better understand and more ably serve God’s creation. Our traditional teachings remind us of our individual obligation to seek knowledge unto the ends of the earth – and of our social obligation to honor and nurture the full potential of every human life. (Aga Khan IV 2008)

In this sense education within AKDN is what Khoja-Moolji (2015)  calls a “faith-inspired vision of educational development. The Aga Khan’s narrative on education gets translated into practice through the agencies of the AKDN. Five of the AKDN agencies: Aga Khan Academies, Aga Khan Education Services, Aga Khan Foundation, Aga Khan University, and University of Central Asia have the mandate for education from early childhood to higher secondary, vocational to university degrees and continuing professional development, reaching 2 million students across 16 countries.

The Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) provides education from pre-primary to higher secondary and also facilitates tertiary education through scholarships, career support, and hostel provision. Most of the Aga Khan Schools and other services are diverted to remote and underserved communities in regions such as Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. The mission of AKESP is “to enable many generations of students to acquire both knowledge and the essential spiritual wisdom needed to balance that knowledge and enable their lives to attain the higher fulfillment” (see AKESP 2020).

Aga Khan School building in Chitral: photo credit

The history of Aga Khan Schools in Pakistan goes back to the early 1900s – the first school was established in Gwadar Baluchistan in 1905. In the 1940s, schools for girls’ education were established in the Gilgit-Baltistan region in commemoration of Aga Khan III’s diamond jubilee – completion of 60 years of Aga Khan III’s Imamat (1885 – 1945). He was a great advocate of education and particularly education for girls. He is noted to have said, “personally if I had two children, and one was a boy and the other a girl, and I could afford to educate only one, I would have no hesitation in giving the higher education to the girl” (Aga Khan III 1945). This quote has inspired the Ismaili community to educate their girls who otherwise suffered marginalisation in the traditional cultural norms. Today this saying of Aga Khan III can be seen displayed in many Aga Khan Schools in Chitral as well as other places.  

Aga Khan School building in Chitral: photo credit

At present AKESP is one of the largest private-sector education providers with 155 schools and 47,000 students and 5 hostels. Most of the Aga Khan Schools (147) are in the remote, isolated, and disadvantaged valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan (103) and Chitral (44) providing access to over 35,000 students, of whom 50% are female. These schools contributed significantly to the literacy and socio-economic conditions of these remote communities.

A teacher facilitating student learning in a Aga Khan School in Chitral: source

In Chitral, however, it took another 40 years to establish Aga Khan Schools due to certain unfavourable circumstances including a reluctance of the local rulers to allow opening schools. Also, education did not receive attention from the state until recently. As a result, Chitral remained miserably underserved in all aspects of development including education. As the two educational leaders working with AKEP in Chitral, who participated in my PhD research project, note:

Before we started our schools, there were no school, no opportunities for girls to get education in the district …. educating girls was a far dream, there were no schools, particularly female literacy rate was negligible in Chitral, it was only 2% [in 1980s].

(Education leader 1, personal communication, August 23, 2019)

When AKESP started its school in Chitral in the 1980s, the female literacy rate was 2%. It has now around 57%…AKESP has been a key contributor to girls’ education, particularly in the isolated and remote valleys. We claim to be the pioneer of girls’ schools in Chitral and have worked extensively on this issue… Otherwise, the status of female education would have been different; and perhaps the literacy rate would have reached 10%.

(Education leader 2, personal communication, August 23, 2019)

Students of a Aga Khan School in Chitral: source

According to the 1981 District Census Report Chitral, the adult literacy rate was just 12.7%: 21.9% for males, and 2.3% for females, and it has now reached 62% (72% male and 56 % female) (see Khan 1983). Aga Khan Schools have played a key role in improving the literacy rate in Chitral. There is a widespread perception that the Aga Khan Schools provide better education as compared to other schools. Therefore, parents prefer to send their children to Aga Khan Schools.        


AKDN institutions contribute to the development, and towards achieving the SDGs agenda (see Part 1 for SDGs) Pakistan converging its attention on the development and education of marginalised and underserved segments of the society. Each of its agencies with a specific mandate, address various issues and the associated SDGs. In education, consistent with the targets of the SDG4, inclusive and quality education for all is the goal of education at the Aga Khan Schools with a focus on access to education, pre-primary education, quality, gender equity, inclusion, and lifelong learning. In the next blog, I will look at some of the programmes that Aga Khan Schools in Chitral implement to integrate some key global trends in education (including the SDGs), in the local context of Chitral.

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 2)


This is the second blog in a series of blog posts on some of the challenges faced by Pakistani education and the relevance of the United Nations (US) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework for shaping the discourse of education and development. In this blog, I discuss some of the challenges with regard to access to education in Pakistan. This discussion will be framed by the following key themes:

  • the low adult literacy rate,
  • the challenges posed by out of school children and the high dropout rates.

In exploring these challenges of access to education, I refer to issues of poverty and other challenges which hinder access to education.

Colonial legacies and poor educational performance

As I discussed in part one of this blog series, before 1947 Pakistan remained a part of the British colonial empire. Postcolonial Pakistan inherited a British-European model of education through different processes and over time. Over the course of its postcolonial history, Pakistan has changed the content of education by Islamising and localising it. However, it has retained the colonial structure of the education systems, institutions, curricular and pedagogical practices. Pakistan also retained the English language as the official language – which has acted as a means to produce and reproduce  privileges for the upper classes.  

1. Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan was established during the British-Colonial era. Image Credit

Despite the passage of 73 years since independence from the British colonial occupation, Pakistan is systematically performing poorly in the field of education. This includes performing lower than those countries with similar or even lower per capita income. As a result, the Oslo summit on education in 2015 described Pakistan as one of the worst-performing countries in education.

2. Structure of Pakistani education system

One indicator of this poor performance in education is the slow growth in the adult literacy rate and stagnant enrolment. In 1947, adult literacy in Pakistan was just 10%, which currently stands at 62.3%. Zaigham Khan, an anthropologist and developmental professional, claimed in a tv talk show that the actual literacy rate is around 50% and the official figures do not reflect the reality. Even with 63.3%, the average annual growth of adult literacy in Pakistan has been less than 1 percentage point per annum over the last 73 years.

3. Illiterate Adult in Pakistan. Data Source

Data shows (see figure 3) that there are 65.4 million illiterate adults in Pakistan. That means Pakistan’s illiterate population segment exceeds the total population of a number of countries, including, for example, Italy.

Numbers of ‘out of school’ children, and school dropout rates

Various factors contribute to this poor educational performance. One of the major issues facing education in Pakistan is a lack of access to education. The severity of this challenge can be seen in the sheer number of out of school children. There are 22.8 to 25 million children aged 5 to 16 currently out of school in Pakistan (see figure 4). Pakistan’s out of school children constitute 44% of the total age group 5 to 16 years in the country. This means that Pakistan is a country with the second-highest number of out-of-school children in the world. It is a member of the E9 countries, whose other member states are Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria. The E-9 group represents half of the world’s population and 70% of the world’s illiterate adults. In this group, Pakistan and Nigeria have the lowest literacy rates.

4. Enrolled and out of school children in Pakistan (numbers in millions). Data source

Linked to the challenges of out of school children is the issue of massive school dropout rates. This means that not all those children and young people enrolled in schools complete their school education. The data from 2017 shows that nearly 33% of the total enrolled students at the primary level drop out after grade 5, while the data from 2015 shows that 31% student dropout even before stepping into grade 5. The retention rate across the country at primary level varies significantly. The data for 2016-17 shows that in around 10 districts across Pakistan less than 10% students complete primary level schooling. In Baluchistan and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, over 50% of students dropout of schooling before reaching Grade 5. Only in Gilgit-Baltistan do 100% of enrolled students complete Grade 5. The data from 2015 indicates that 72% of the total enrolled students drop out before completing grade 10 in high school. This dropout rate adds to the challenge of out of school children between the ages of 11 to 16 years. This alarming dropout rate means that Pakistan has the highest school dropout rates in the world. Together with the out of school children, the drop out ratio adds to the issues of educational (in)competence and illiteracy.

5. Image Credit

Poverty and resource scarcity, displacement, parental attitude, and the ‘digital divide’ are among the many factors which contribute to the issues of access to quality education in Pakistan. Here, I discuss some of these factors.

Poverty and lack of government support

Many Pakistan children do not attend schools because they are too marginalised and poor to afford to attend schools. Data from 2015 shows that 46 million people, comprising 24.3% of the Pakistani population live below the poverty line. Over the past two years poverty has increased in Pakistan and 87 million, or 40% of Pakistanis are considered to live in poverty. Many children of school age help their parents in earning income, as a result there are 12.5 million Pakistan children involved in child labour. COVID-19 is likely to further aggravate poverty in Pakistan. In this context, the challenges of access to basic education relate to resource scarcity and the inefficient use of existing resources. Pakistan spends 2.3% of its GDP on education. This is the lowest spending in the region, and indicates that public education has been, and continues to be, low in the government’s priorities. Over 80% of the education budget goes for funding the salaries of the education staff. This leaves limited resources for education-development expenditure and even this small portion of funding is not well utilised.

6. For the last 20 years Muhammad Ayoub has been voluntarily running a free school for the poor out of school children in the open space of a park in Islamabad. Image Credit

Inefficient use of resources and corrupt practices contribute to the resources not being utilised for the vast majority of people. As a result, most Pakistani public schools are devoid of basic facilities. At the same time, some ghost-teachers never come to school but draw salaries, while some bureaucrats draw salaries in the name of teachers who exist on paper only. Other corrupt practices involving politicians and bureaucrats contribute to inept use/misuse of resources.

Militancy, displacement and threat to education

In parts of the country, militancy and violence have impacted students’ access to school education. For example, the nearly two decades of the (so-called) ‘war on terror’ have negatively impacted schooling in Pakistan. In parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the militants have blown up several school buildings, depriving the students and communities of school facilities. This included blowing up twelve schools in a single evening of August 2018. Several million people in part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were displaced and moved out of their hometowns for safety, which hampered the schooling of their children. Even when they returned to their hometowns not all children could make it to schools because of security issues, and uncertainty, or the school buildings were not reconstructed. Many militant groups threatened students, particularly female students from going to schools. Despite the government’s claims about overcoming violent militancy, the threat to education is not yet over. As recently as in November 2020, pamphlets attributed to Pakistani Taliban groups were distributed in Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in which girls going to colleges were threatened and asked to quit education. In 2016 schools in the Punjab province were temporarily closed over the threat of Taliban attack.

7. A school building in Pakistan bombed by the militants. Image Credit

Along with militancy, natural disasters have impacted access to quality education. Disasters such as flooding and earthquakes not only destroy school buildings, they compel people to move from their localities, and disrupt schooling and education in the long run. In some situations schools and colleges are turned into places of accommodation for people fleeing from affected areas, which deprives the students of that locality from their school-buildings.

Parents’ attitudes to education and quality of education.

Many parents feel that public school education is not relevant to the needs of their children in terms of knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions. As a result, these parents do not send their children to school. Along with these issues of access and deprivation, the quality of public education is a paramount challenge. The Global Competitiveness Index 2019 showed that Pakistan ranks 110 out of 141 countries in terms of global competitiveness. The Index also shows that in South Asia, Pakistan is behind every country, which is a testimony of the poor-quality education and the skills and capabilities developed through it. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) The Global Human Capital Report 2017 ranked Pakistan 125 out of 130 countries in terms of educational attainment and skills. The issue of educational quality can also be understood in light of the differentiated education system, which I discuss in the next blog.

Covid-19 and Pakistan’s digital divide

The challenges to young people accessing quality education in Pakistan have been amplified due to COVID-19. Many rural students have found the process of switching to online classes difficult because of the lack of access to the internet or computer devices and electricity; a situation reflective of Pakistan’s digital divide. Instead of providing internet access to students, the government turned to a one-way information transmission through television as a medium of education. Even where the internet was available, most school-teachers in the public education sector found it challenging to turn to online teaching.

8. Students from remote rural Pakistan climb the hills to access internet for online classes. Image credit


The government claims to work on providing education to out of school children, but the majority of the current generation of out of school children would certainly step into adulthood without going to school. The stagnant enrolments, and the high dropout ratio do not bode well for any solution to this issue soon. Data of 2018 shows that the Net Enrolment Rate (NER) is 74% in Pakistan, while in Iran, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India the NER is above 95%. With a birth rate of 3.5%, Pakistani society is adding many more children to this group of out of school children and this challenge of providing education to all children in Pakistan will likely continue to wait for a solution.

9. Pakistan’s education policy framework 2018

All this is despite the fact that Pakistan’s Constitution guarantees free basic education. Article 25-A of the Constitution obliges the state to provide free and compulsory quality education to children between 5 to 16 years, while Article 37-B makes the state responsible for the eradication of illiteracy at the earliest. Despite these constitutional provisions, Pakistan continues to have a large section of the child population who do not attend school.

The cursory study of Pakistan’s educational trajectory shows that the country has done well in policy making, but has lagged in policy implementation. Successive Pakistani governments set deadlines for achieving higher literacy rates and proposed solutions. But each time they have missed the deadline and extended it, only for it to be missed again. And this exercise continues. For example, the first educational conference in 1947 set 20 years (thus 1967) for achieving universal primary education. Each of the five year plans, and developmental projects discussed primary education and extended the deadline to achieve the target of 100% universal primary education. But universal primary education is still not in sight for Pakistan in 2020.

To this point I have discussed some of the multi-faceted challenges that determine children’s access to schooling in Pakistan. As a result, around 22.8 million children are out of school, and many more drop out every year. COVID-19 has contributed further to the complexity of the situation for many of Pakistani young people’s access to quality education. In the next blog, I will investigate the differentiated education system in Pakistan in terms of the public, private, madrassa and its implications for the promise of equitable and quality education for all Pakistan’s young people.

SDGs and Pakistan

Why can’t 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 1)


Over the next few months – drawing on my ongoing PhD research project – I will write a series of blogs on the challenges of access to quality education for all young people in Pakistan, and the role of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in providing a framework for action in relation to these challenges.

The blog series is informed by my PhD research project, which engages with issues of cultural politics of education curriculum, pluralism, inclusion and the relevance of the SDGs, using postcolonial theory. My thesis, titled The Cultural Politics of Curriculum in Pakistan: The challenges for pluralism, inclusion and the UN SDGs in a Postcolonial context uses the SDGs as a global framework. The significance of this investigation stems from the complex manifestations and outcomes of religious-sectarian, fundamentalist, violent extremism and intolerance, which have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people over the last 2 decades in Pakistan. Through an engagement with the ‘cultural politics’ of education curriculum, the research project seeks to explore the possibilities of reshaping the cultural politics of education curriculum towards the goals of pluralism and inclusion in Pakistani society.

In part 1 of this blog series, I provide a brief introduction to the emergence of Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state and refer to some of the challenges which played an important role in determining the future course of its history with regard to development and education.

Pakistan and the challenges for sustainable development in a postcolonial nation-state

Pakistan is a postcolonial nation-state in South Asia. With a population of 214 million people, others estimate it around 222 million, Pakistan is the 5th largest country in the world in terms of population. Before it emerged as a postcolonial nation-state on 14th August 1947, the regions constituting Pakistan were part of the British colonial-India. The British colonial occupation transformed the South Asian societies by replacing the traditional systems of governance, institutions, education systems and practices, and various modes of political association. It is in this sense that we can say that many of Pakistan’s current problems of development and education have colonial strings attached to it. 

Pakistan’s Map. Image credit

Though heir to some of the greatest ancient human civilisations including those of the Indus Valley and Gandhara, Pakistan is a young nation-state. Since its independence in 1947, it has been facing a number of key challenges. These challenges, outlined below, have played a role in determining the course of Pakistan’s history, society, education and development.

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One of the major challenges is geography. In 1947, Pakistan consisted of two exclaves called East and West Pakistan. Both were separated from each other by more than 1000 miles of Indian territory. All federating units consisting of the provinces and princely states which joined Pakistan in 1947 had different languages, cultures, and some even had vastly different courses of histories. This created the challenge of articulating a national identity that would reflect the unity of the nation while encompassing the hugely diverse society. To respond to this challenge, Pakistan opted for Islam as the foundation of its national identity. Islam, the religion of an overwhelming majority of the country’s population, provided a unifying and bonding element. Over the years this version of the national identity became enshrined in the concept of the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’.

The Shrine of a Sufi-Saint, Shah Rukn-e-Alam, in Multan, Pakistan. Many South Asian Muslim highly revere the Sufis. Image Credit

Despite these efforts, throughout its postcolonial history since 1947, Pakistan has faced periods of ethnic, linguistic, and religious-sectarian violence. From the early days, matters related to the issues of official language and political representations created rifts between East and West Pakistan resulting in the ethnic-inspired civil war in 1971, which ended in the separation of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh.

More recently, from 2004 to 2018, and in ways that are intimately connected to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the so-called global ‘war-on-terror’, religious-sectarian groups have waged a war against Pakistan, causing the deaths of over 65,000 Pakistanis. Along with these challenges, sectarian violence has continued to haunt the nation from the beginning of its independence and particularly since the 1980s. Armed local sectarian groups, claimed to have global connections, have continuously targeted their sectarian rivals by killing religious leaders, bombing religious gatherings, and damaging properties.

A screenshot of a BBC Video showing people of Waziristan moving out for safety in the face of military operation against the militants. Image credit

Another challenge that Pakistan has been facing is a lack of industrialisation and infrastructure. The regions consisting of Pakistan were at the periphery of both the Mughal and British Empires. Though the British colonial administration did some work in developing a network of irrigation channels in Punjab, most of the Pakistani regions remained devoid of the institutional and industrial facilities during the colonial era. For example, out of 87 technical institutes only 6 were in Pakistan and out of 21 Universities only 3 were in Pakistan (see the proceedings of Pakistan’s first educational conference in Karachi 1947).

Karachi is the commercial and financial hub of the country. Image credit

Pakistan has not done very well in industrial development over its postcolonial history. Economic and technological development remains a distant dream even after 73 years of independence. Resource scarcity and inefficient use of the existing resources can be blamed for Pakistan’s poor economic performance. A simple comparison with Bangladesh reflects this poor economic performance. In 1973 Pakistan’s GDP was over 10 Billion US$, while that of Bangladesh was just 6 Billion US$, Bangladesh’s export were 377 million US$ and Pakistan’s export stood at 760 million US$ in the same period. 2018’s data indicates that Bangladesh’s exports stand at $US35.8 Billion in comparison to Pakistan’s $US24.8 Billion. The Asian Development Bank’s Developmental Outlook for the South Asia region released in 2019, before the outbreak of Covid-19, showed that Pakistan’s economy was expected to perform lower than that of every country in South Asia, including Afghanistan. As a result of this economic crunch, Pakistan has become economically dependent on the Western nations, as it receives aid/loans from the West-based economic institutions and loan/donation from the United States by providing strategic concessions.

Pakistani delegation in talks with IMF and World Bank official for loan/aid. Image credit

Political instability, yet another challenge for Pakistan, has also contributed to the dire developmental performance of the country and poor state of education. Pakistan’s political instability and issues of governance have continued to hamper sustainable economic growth, social development and democratic stability. The military-Generals have ruled the country for 35 years through martial law and have also influenced the democratic governments throughout history. A political culture centred on feudal and tribal values, where people choose their political representatives based on familial, clan and sectarian affiliations, or for personal-material gains instead of merit has contributed to a weak democratic system.

A Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, about the first martial law in 1958. Image credit

The armed forces were granted a prominent place in the national institutional fabric after independence, because of the hostile geopolitical neighbourhood, particularly the tensions with the two of Pakistan’s neighbours, India and Afghanistan. This has diverted the majority of the nation’s resources to defence, instead of development and education. As a result, education and social development initiatives do not find their place on the priority list of any government in Pakistan. The history of spending on social development in Pakistan, including education, reflects this sorry state of the economy. The UNDP’s human development report 2013 indicated that Pakistan’s spending on the social sector was lower than even the poorest African countries i.e., Congo. In 2020, Pakistan’s State Bank admitted that the country was spending very little on the social sector in the context of continuous economic problems.

Charity organisations offer free food during the holy month of Ramazan and on many other occasions. Image credit

Despite all these challenges and many more, the size of the youth population provides Pakistan with an opportunity to steer the country towards development and progress. 64% of Pakistanis, according to the data of 2018, are below the age of 30 years, and 29% of Pakistanis are aged between 15 to 19. However, the education system’s capacity to harness this potential of the young population through provision of access to appropriate knowledge, attitude and relevant skills is doubtful. This is obvious from the more than 22.8 million school-age young people who do not attend school. The corrupt practices, nepotism, undue political interferences in education, and lack of capacity to efficiently use the available resources, make the public education system’s capability to provide access to quality education for all young Pakistanis uncertain. The confinement of quality education to a relatively small, privileged segment of the society, through the network of high-fee elite private schools, works against the possibility of quality education for all.

The major challenges faced by the postcolonial state of Pakistan continue to play a role in determining Pakistan’s future course of history with regard to society, polity, development and education. In the next blog, I will discuss the key challenges that constrain young people in Pakistan in relation to access to education – a situation that currently leaves tens of millions of school-age children out of school.

SDGs and Pakistan

Postcolonial Pakistan and the Promise of Quality and Inclusive Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(Part 1)


Over the next couple of months, I will be writing a series of blog posts on the challenges facing Pakistan in relation to development and education, and the prospects and limits of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a way of understanding and addressing these challenges.

In this first blog, I introduce Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state; this is important for understanding and contextualising ongoing challenges to development and education in the country. I then discuss the SDGs’ agenda and its relevance to the discourse of development and especially to education in Pakistan.

The subsequent blog will focus on the role of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and more specifically the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) in contributing to development and education in some of the remote, isolated, and marginalised regions of Pakistan such as the two districts of Chitral – Upper Chitral and Lower Chitral – in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.

I write these blogs drawing on my Ph.D. research project entitled Educational Leadership and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Postcolonial Pakistan. This project explores opportunities and challenges for educational leaders in delivering on the promise of quality and inclusive education in the Aga Khan Schools in Chitral, Pakistan.

Postcolonial Pakistan: challenges for development at the start of the 21st century

Pakistan became a separate Islamic nation-state as a result of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent at the end of the British colonial rule in India in 1947. It is a country of more than 214 million people.  There are four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan – and two self-governing territories under Pakistan’s control -Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan in present Pakistan (see map below). The population consists of diverse ethnic groups, mainly Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Saraikis, Muhajirs, Baloch along with many other smaller groups. Majority of the population, around 96.03%, is Muslim and the rest comprises of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Baha’is, Sikhs, Parsis, Kalash, Buddhists, and Jains.

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As a postcolonial state, Pakistan has confronted numerous challenges since its inception. Poverty, overpopulation, corruption, poor governance, political instability, illiteracy, terrorism, tensions with India, and within-state religious and sectarian tensions, and a string of natural disasters (earthquakes and floods) are the core challenges for the country.

The initial challenge of dealing with the cross-border mass migration was caused due to the hasty formation of separate Muslim and Hindu states Pakistan and India, that left many thousands of people living on the ‘wrong’ side of the border. This challenge was rooted in Britain’s colonial policy of divide and rule in handling the subcontinent’s Hindu and Muslim subjects. When people struggled to get into the nation of their religious majority, violence broke out and thousands of people suffered from brutal killings and looting on both sides of the border. Between fourteen to sixteen million people were forced to leave amidst killings of around one million and some commentators have argued provocatively, that this was the first large-scale incidence of ethnic cleansing in the world (see Reid and Burky). The proportion of the Muslim population in the newly established country increased from 75% to 95% as a result of mass migration. Since partition, Pakistan and India have fought wars in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999 and tensions continue to exist on the borders.

The state assumed that Islam as a common religion would provide a shared identity to the diverse ethnic groups leading to national cohesion and harmony. However, despite this effort, various ethnic, linguistic and sectarian tensions continued to plague the country. The ethnic and linguistic differences led to the split of the country and the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate country in 1971.

Situated in a hostile neighborhood, the perceived threats emanating from a hostile India and an unfriendly Afghanistan, have fuelled military spending in Pakistan. This has diverted huge resources to defense at the cost of the development of the people. Such a defense-centric policy has strengthened the military institution at the cost of other political and bureaucratic institutions by giving the defense forces a central place in access to resources, decision-making as well as privileges. The military has directly ruled the country for 35 years through frequent coups at different points in time. None of the elected Prime Ministers, except once, has been able to complete the tenure of office, and political governments remain keen to enlist the military’s goodwill. The prevailing corruption in politics and the bureaucracy, and the politicians’ attempts to bolster their own power by inviting the military to take over the reign of power are major factors in preventing democracy from flourishing in the country.

Population growth is a major challenge for development. There are serious concerns about the validity of the official figures pertaining to the current population and the actual population is said to be much higher. World Population Review 2020 reports a population of more than 222 million, a doubling from 1990 to 2019. As a result Pakistan’s ranking moved from 8th to 5th largest in the world. The unprecedented population growth contributes to slow economic growth, unemployment, and consequently to poverty in the country. With the current rate of growth, the population of the country is expected to reach 403 million by 2050.

It can be argued that some of Pakistan’s problems have their roots in the colonial past and that these create legacies in policies and practices in the present time. As a postcolonial state, Pakistan inherited the existing colonial structures and systems in fields including civil service, bureaucracy, military, judiciary, and education. The colonial structure and systems continue to exist and influence until the present time at the expense of a truly participatory, self-conceived, and self-directed development model for the country. As a result, the country presents a picture of a complex postcolonial nation-state, posing severe challenges for development and education.

The SDGs, education, and development in Pakistan

In light of the key challenges confronting the country, the SDGs are relevant to the discourse of development and especially to education in Pakistan. The SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 targets, constituting a global framework for sustainable development through addressing extreme poverty, inequalities, and protecting the environment. The promise for

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education is articulated in the form of SDG 4 that seeks to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Pakistan demonstrated its commitment to the agenda in October 2015 by becoming the first country in the world to adopt the SDGs as its national development agenda and having endorsed by the parliament. In this context, the SDGs shape the development discourse in Pakistan in relation to the challenges confronting the country.

The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees education as a fundamental right of all citizens. The Article 25A of the Constitution states that: “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.” The public sector caters to the educational needs of 57% of the students as compared to 43% in the private sector. However, the performance of public sector education has been poor. Pakistan has been persistently performing poorly on all major education indicators; access to education, enrolment, literacy and numeracy, retention and completion, financial and human resource, learning environment, and governance of the school.

The adult literacy rate is 62.3% comprising 72.5% males and 51.8% females, with substantial disparities on criteria such as geography, the rural-urban divide, socio-economic status, and disability. The total number of school-aged children (5 – 16 years) is 51.53 million, and of these 28.68 million are attending school, while  22.84 million children do not attend school. This makes Pakistan the world’s second-highest in terms of out-of-school children, 44% of the cohort population being in this category.

Apart from access to education, the quality of education children receive is worrisome. Many of the children attending school suffer from a ‘learning crisis’ or ‘ learning poverty’ which means students in schools are not learning basic literacy and numeracy. This problem is more severe in Pakistan when compared to other low-or middle-income countries. For instance, 75% of children attending schools in Pakistan cannot read and understand a simple text by age 10, as compared to the overall average of 58% for South Asia.

Addressing the problem of access and quality is critical to progress towards the broader agenda of an inclusive, quality for all agenda as envisioned in SDG 4. It is encouraging to note that the current National Education Framework attempts to contextualise the agenda for education at the national, provincial, and district level for effective implementation. This framework sets out four strategic priorities for immediate action

  1. addressing the issue of out-of-school-children;
  2. bringing uniformity in education standards;
  3. improving the quality of education; and
  4. enhancing access to and relevance of skills training.

Many schools, particularly in the rural context, suffer from lack of basic infrastructure and resources. Public investment in education is minimal and has remained around 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) against a notional commitment of 4 % and the recommendation of 4 to 6% of GDP or 15 to 20% of the total public expenditure in the Incheon Declaration. A large portion of the allocated budget for education (92%) is spent on salaries, and even the remaining funds dedicated to development such as school facilities, training, monitoring and supervision, and curriculum development, is not spent efficiently due to poor decision-making, failure to empower educational leaders working in school and district education offices as well as poor management and governance. Historically, educational governance and management have been poor in the country. Due to the low performance of public sector education, parents preferred private sector schools. However, during the past few years, there have been some improvements in the public education sector in terms of upgrading facilities, ensuring teachers’ presence through the biometric system, and induction of teachers based on merit. These improvements have meant increased enrolments in the public education sector and a decrease in the private education sector (see ASER-Pakistan report). The increased number of students in public schools indicates the confidence of parents in the school public sector education.  


Given these challenges for Pakistani education, the SDGs provide an opportunity for collective action and reflection on the local needs and priorities in the global context. Pakistan has shown enthusiasm to adopt the SDGs at its own development goals based on national and international commitments. However, the state’s policies historically fall short in the implementation phase. Pakistan has not been able to meet its commitments in any of the previous national education policies. Likewise, international commitments have not been met. For instance, Pakistan failed to achieve the goal for the Education For All (EFA) and lies at the bottom in the region (South Asia) on the EFA Development Index. The targets not achieved in EFA are now part of the SDGs’ agenda. In the implementation phase, progress has been very slow even though it has been five years since the SDGs were adopted. The 2020 Sustainable Development Report, shows that Pakistan stands at 134th out of 166 countries in the SDG Index Score with 56.2 scores against the regional score of 67.2 for East and South Asia. This progress is based on data collected before the outbreak of the pandemic. When the impact of the COVID-19 is accounted for, the situation maybe even worse than shown in the report. For achieving the SDGs agenda the government must focus on the implementation of the plan at the national, provincial, and district levels.    

My next blog (Part 2) will focus on the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – its history, development approach, and contribution to development and education in Pakistan and particularly to some of the remote and underserved regions such as Chitral in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.

SDGs and Pakistan

Achieving gender parity in rural Pakistan schools: A postcolonial perspective (Part 2)

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In this second post that explores the challenges of achieving gender parity in rural Balochistan schools, I argue that various policy developments are problematic in postcolonial Pakistan. In this post I draw on three overlapping forms of globalization: commodification of human efforts; expansion of western culture; and influence of global policies to the state policies to illustrate the divide in policy and practice for achieving gender parity in schools in Balochistan.

Commodification of human efforts

Balochistan’s rural areas have a low supply of schooling options for girls, yet a high demand for girls’ education among the local communities. In contrast, many urban communities who have multiple options available to girls. This problem is compounded by the transnational flow of global education policy and ideas through the policy networks in Pakistan. These networks are understood and translated by policy actors at the national level which are insufficiently represented from Balochistan. 

These policy actors comprise the top-level bureaucrats, politicians, education experts, UN organizations, civil servants, philanthropists, education entrepreneurs and so forth. The network of these policy actors develops and enacts education policy. These policies have little impact on girls’ education in rural areas of Balochistan for two reasons. First, the stereotypical image of Balochistan, as a remote, tribal and society unwilling to educate girls, dominates the policy discourse. This is because most of the policy actors at the national level either have never been to Balochistan province or have limited knowledge of the rural culture and society. Second, in Pakistan the children of upper and upper middle-class policy actors are enrolled in elite private schools. This creates a gap in understanding the challenges and opportunities of rural girls in Balochistan who rely only on public schools because of the shortage of available private school options. The remote villages and isolated populations are neither a good business opportunity for private education entrepreneurs nor administratively viable for philanthropists. Therefore, the children of rural Balochistan, particularly girls have limited options to attend quality schools (with English as a language of instruction). 

More importantly, the apparatus of bureaucracy, although powerful, is inherently inefficient and relies on the conventional modes of policy making. After the 18th constitutional amendment in 2010, education, previously in the federal concurrent list, was devolved completely as the provincial government’s responsibility including policy formulation and enactment. However, education policy discourse and education curriculum are still influenced by the federal government as well as multinational and transnational organizations in different ways, including overlapping of national and provincial policy actors. This influence is partly due to the lack of interest and motivation from the provincial government’s political sphere and bureaucracy and partly due to the narratives of uniformity and national integration. 

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The expansion of Western culture

At the turn of twenty first century national education policy (2009) has emerged out of the global and transnational influences, in the shape of new development goals. Education policy is formed beyond the boundaries of nation state at different locations in the network of various people, sites, places, events and organizational forms. These networks are a form of new imperialism, and a continuation of Western imperialism which threatens local and indigenous cultures, and which, in turn, promote persistent inequalities. The less the country is ‘developed’ the more global influence in the national policy landscape, and the more external penetration there is in the national education terrain. The route of such policy ideas is from the core to the periphery, and ‘elite partnership’ and ‘postcolonial elite’ play a major role in (re) production of imperial and colonial structures. For example, although the private sector is providing enhanced access and better-quality education compared to the public sector, it is, simultaneously, promoting English education as the major instrument for upward mobility in society as well as becoming a source of inequality. The middle and upper middle classes can afford the expenses of private schools, learn English and have more employment opportunities in high paid positions in both the public and private sectors. Those who graduate from public schools do not have the opportunity to learn English, therefore, they end up either unemployed or in low paid employment. 

The influence of global policies on state policies

In Balochistan province, the education policy process is significantly influenced by the transnational organizations, UN agencies and donors because they are proactive in bringing the provincial education policy and strategy in line to their annual plans or at least to their project tenure. These policy actors in key management, bureaucratic and political positions at the provincial level exert their influence through policy translation, policy interpretation and policy implementation. These positions are mostly filled by men from urban backgrounds with little knowledge beyond their district or recognition of diverse cultural, social and patriarchal heterogeneity throughout the province. For example, the Balochistan Compulsory Education Act (BCEA) 2014 announced that public education was being provided free of cost. However, the enactment of this policy is difficult in rural areas because schools have hidden costs including school uniforms, shoes, stationery and so on. This means that families are unable to send their daughters to school. Further, there are families who migrate seasonally for work on agricultural farms, and who find enrolling their daughters into school very challenging as they move from one remote location to another. 

In addition, the enactment of policy is complicated by a gaping hole in the collection of information on girls’ school participation. Presently, there is no data available for girls not enrolled in school in Balochistan. The formation of institutions is desperately needed to establish mechanism for recording, updating and tracing girls’ participation and achievement in school for the purpose of governance and to inform future policy development. This lack of data leaves many questions we do not have answers to, such as, who is not enrolled in school, where do they live, what are their circumstances, and how can they can be enrolled in school to succeed in education? 

Photo credit: District Education Group

Gaps between policy and policy implementation

In conclusion, I reiterate that power relations in the new and changing sites of policy processes play an important role in policy discourse through the new and conventional policy networks in Balochistan. These networks reify globalization through its forms of commodification of human efforts, expansion of western culture and influence of global policies to the state policies. The devolved education in the post-18th constitutional amendment in Pakistan and Incheon Declaration redefine and reallocate the assemblage of sites, people, events, institutions and authorities, and attempt to establish interactive relationships with the provincial and local policy actors.

In 2010 the education sector was decentralised from the federal to the provincial level through the 18th amendment. Many international, national and local actors, presently, in the policy processes in Balochsitan represent the upper class which in turn displaces local knowledge, local concerns and even silences local voices that tend to distort the reality and perpetuate the gender disparity in education in rural Balochistan. The male, urban upper and upper middle-class policy actors who enroll their children in English medium private schools and influence the policy discourse for the rural girls in the province do not necessarily represent the realities of rural communities and girls. 

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SDGs and Pakistan

Achieving gender parity in rural Pakistan schools: A postcolonial perspective (Part 1)

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The historical status of girls’ education in the rural parts of Pakistan such as Balochistan is bleak. Various national and international reportsintrastate discourse and political rhetoric argue that patriarchy, remoteness, poverty, security and rugged topography are mainly responsible for the indicators of girls’ low enrolment and high dropout in the rural schools of Pakistan. I want to emphasize, however, that these factors interact with the discourse of education policy, changing power relations, the role of stakeholders and policy actors, and the emerging mode of governance and the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) policy processes. Keeping this backdrop in mind, in this series of blog posts I outline some key issues to explore a different way of thinking, informed by a postcolonial approach, in relation to the girls’ education in rural areas of Balochistan. In this first post I want to provide some context to understanding Balochistan, and why these challenges persist and in the following one I argue that the education policy developments are problematic in postcolonial Pakistan.

Image credit: District Education Group 

Background on Balochistan and the policy landscape

Balochistan is one of Pakistan’s four provinces that accounts for around 5.5 percent of the country’s 207.77 million people and constitutes 44 percent of the total land. Pakistan is a low-income country with 1186 USD GDP per capita and it ranks 110 out of 141 countries in the global competitive index (GCI). The literacy rate in Pakistan is 60 percent, 49 percent females and 70 percent males. Pakistan ranks 130 out of 137 countries in primary education and performs better than only Afghanistan in South Asia (SA) in girls’ education. The gender parity index (GPI) in primary school participation is 0.85 and girls’ enrolment rate is 68 percent, better than only Afghanistan in SA, and Chad and South Sudan in sub-Saharan countries. 

Within Pakistan there is also severe disparity in the schools by province and rural/urban location. For example, in Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) less than 10 percent of girls are out of school whereas in rural Balochistan it is over 75 percent. In Pakistan the diversity in geography, religious beliefs, culture, social and economic situations of various population groups and regions pose different challenges and opportunities for girls’ education. Girls from disadvantaged backgrounds in the rural remote areas of Balochistan will most likely not participate in school or they will be at risk of leaving school early. 

Image credit: District Education Group

The number of international, national and local policies has risen over the past few decades in response to the increased number of girls not enrolled in school, increased dropout rates and a wide gender disparity in schools in Balochistan. A brief overview of education policy development in Pakistan reveals various initiatives and instruments at the federal and provincial levels, that are enacted in the form of policies, programmes, legislative Acts and strategies, to achieve the targets of Education for All (EFA) and gender equality in schools. The vision of EFA was initiated in Jomtein, Thailand in 1990, reiterated in the Dakar framework of action in the year 2000, and continued as an unfinished agenda beyond 2015 in the Incheon Declaration

The constitutional and legal measures in Pakistan include the incorporation of Article 25-A into the 1973 Constitution of the country to protect the right of every child from the age of 5 to 16 years, irrespective of gender, to education. The Balochistan province further responded with enactment of the Balochistan Compulsory Education Act (BCEA) 2014 to implement Article 25-A of the Constitution in the province. 

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The national and provincial education targets, previously aligned with UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), now aligned with the SDGs, as well as framework of action agreed in the Incheon Declaration by all the member countries to achieve SDGs 4 and 5 by 2030. In the year 2000, in order to address the challenges of poverty, health, education and others, the global community had agreed to achieve eight goals through timebound and measurable objectives and targets. Various international aid packages through UN organizations, donor agencies, transnational organizations, non-government organizations (NGO) have been technically and financially supporting the national education system at different locations such as national, provincial and local. 

Many other countries with similar socio-economic situations and education indicators to Pakistan have significantly progressed and achieved most of their education related MDG targets such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in South Asia. However, Pakistan missed almost all its education related targets by a huge gapUNESCO (2015) reported that Pakistan was a long way away from achieving gender parity in primary school level, despite SA as whole already achieving the target. 

In this situation, owing to severe disparities in schools on the basis of gender and rural-urban locations, UN organizations, donors and transnational organizations enhanced their support at the national level as well as in all provinces including Balochistan. In the next blog post, I argue that these policy developments are problematic in postcolonial Pakistan and draw on three overlapping forms of globalization: commodification of human efforts; expansion of western culture; and influence of global policies to the state policies to illustrate the divide in policy and practice for achieving gender parity in schools in Balochistan (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Three forms of globalization