Anser Javed’s father was a sanitary worker in Karachi; his mother was a sweeper. When his father then died in a work accident, the Pakistani Christian boy was sent to an orphanage as his mother was too poor to care for him. Nevertheless, with support and personal determination, he eventually became the Principal of a school which grew from 200 to 600 students in the eight years he led it. Now, he’s Director of an education charity, Starfish Asia, which has commissioned a survey of Christian schools in Pakistan to highlight the needs of this impoverished minority community.
Pakistan’s education sector generally is starved of resources. Government spending on it is just 2.5% of GDP compared with 4% in neighbouring India. It has the second largest number of children out of school behind Nigeria. It is estimated that 20% of children never attend school, and even if they start, the drop-out rate within primary school is a staggering 41%. Statistics abound to illustrate the plight of the young struggling to access education.
This shortfall in public-sector provision has had two consequences. Many parents choose to send their children to Islamic schools (madrassas). The education these provide is often extremely narrow, though the fact that many offer food and board has a strong appeal for a family struggling to provide for perhaps eight children. More broadly there has been a proliferation of low-fee private schools – and for many, even amongst the poor, these have become the schools of choice. For Christian children faced with discrimination in Government schools, they are especially attractive.
“In the Government school the teachers just ignore you,” one boy told Starfish Pakistan.
“Sometimes they won’t enter you for the exams,” said another.
Government schools may simply not be available in the so-called “Christian colonies” of the cities or majority-Christian villages. And even when they are, the educational outcomes are often better in the low-fee private schools. Pakistan’s Christian communities recognise that education is vital if they are to escape poverty, challenge discrimination and gain respect in society.
UK-based Starfish Asia supports around 35 Christian schools serving 7,500 children from some of the poorest Pakistani families. But it says it realised it was only scratching the surface and wanted to know how many schools existed that catered for the country’s Christian minority.
The survey was conducted by ITA – which produces the Annual State of Education Report for Pakistan – in conjunction with Sanjha, a Christian organisation with a huge network of contacts across the country. Those contacts were trained to deliver a questionnaire to schools. They were paid for every school they surveyed, to give an incentive to find as many as they could. Photographic evidence and telephone follow-up was then used to verify the existence of the schools. In all, more than 700 schools were contacted across the province of Punjab and the cities of Karachi and Islamabad. (Other provinces were not included as the Christian population is much smaller and more disparate.)
School facilities, the survey found, are basic. There were no toilets for children in 13% of the schools; half of them had no playground; a quarter of primary and middle schools did not have safe drinking water. Learning resources were also scarce: 15% of students had no notebooks or writing implements and one in 10 high schools did not even have a blackboard in the classroom. Few had even a box of books as their ‘library’ and less than a quarter of high schools had internet access. The survey found that almost half of students in Class 2 did not have footwear – just one indicator of the poverty of the communities these schools serve.
Teachers in these schools are often dedicated – the rate of teacher absenteeism is far less than in Government schools. But they are poorly paid and often lack qualifications. Salaries range from US$20-70 a month, well below the national minimum wage ($134) and mostly below the international poverty line ($57). Fewer than 20% had a teaching qualification and a quarter were schooled to less than ‘A’-level standard.
While all the head teachers were Christian (a condition of inclusion in the survey), 12% of students were drawn from Muslim or other communities and a similar proportion of teachers. Islam is an obligatory component of the national curriculum, but 95% of the schools surveyed also included Bible teaching. A third of the schools had a formal Church association.
These ‘Christian’ schools are run on a shoestring. A fifth of them charge less than a dollar a month and two thirds of the schools rely solely on fees, receiving no funding from Government, churches or NGOs. Each school, the report found, expects to collect just Rs 39,000 ($372) a month in fees.
The schools provide places for children who might otherwise be excluded from education, equipping children with basic skills to offer them hope of work beyond sweeping streets or making bricks.
Nonetheless, the survey found schools are plagued by high student absenteeism and an alarming drop-out rate, perhaps due to family pressure on the children to work, parents’ inability to find the fees, or perhaps a failure of the schools to deliver education that meets the children’s needs.
Starfish Asia told World Watch Monitor it knows only too well the struggles these schools face, but that it has also seen remarkable success stories, and cites the example of Ruth.
When marriage took Ruth from the city to a small village, she started teaching literacy to a small class of adults. She soon had an enthusiastic following, who persuaded her to start a primary school. The school now has over 150 students. Her husband, a pastor and teacher drives the bus to help children from the surrounding villages get to school. Some have now progressed to the high school in the neighbouring town on scholarships for able students who want to pursue further studies or vocational training.