Monday, November 09, 2009

To defang Taliban, some look to private schools

QUTBAL, Pakistan — The schoolhouse is so tiny that dozens of pupils have to sit outdoors. They're lucky if their teachers have more than a basic education. And the chanting of math equations and Quranic verses gets so loud that the children have a hard time hearing themselves. Yet the pupils love the Islamia Model School, one of thousands of private schools popping up in Pakistan. Unlike at area public schools, Islamia's seven teachers show up regularly to work. Unlike at religious schools, its curriculum extends well beyond Islam. Plus, it has desks and chairs — no small thing to the many poor families who enroll their children here.

Pakistan is seeing a surge in private schools, a trend some find hopeful in a country where the government education system is decrepit and the other alternative is religious schools, known here as madrasas, which offer little education beyond memorizing the Quran and are seen as one source of Islamic militancy.

The U.S., for one, says it plans to invest in private schools as part of a multibillion-dollar aid package designed to erode extremism in the nuclear-armed country battered by Taliban attacks. "The quality of education in the public sector is deteriorating day by day," said T.M. Qureshi, a Ministry of Education official. "When there's a vacuum of quality, someone will fill it."

According to UNESCO figures, Pakistan spends 2.9 percent of its gross domestic product on education, slightly less than India's 3.2 percent and well below the U.S.'s 5.2 percent. One reason education has historically been a low priority for Pakistani governments, experts say, is that the governing elite can afford to send their children to the best private schools or to academies abroad. Another, the experts say, is the feudal structures in the rural areas that give landowners an incentive to keep farm workers uneducated and submissive. Only around half of Pakistani adults can read, schools often lack basic amenities like water, teachers get away with absences, and the bureaucracy is cumbersome.

But since the mid-1990s, small, inexpensive private schools, once an urban phenomenon, have been sprouting in earnest in the poorer countryside, offering relatively affordable tuition, according to a 2008 World Bank report. Between 2000 and 2005, their number grew from 32,000 to 47,000, the report said. More recent Pakistani government statistics put the figure at more than 58,000. Around one-third of Pakistan's 33 million students attend a range of private schools, far more than the 1.6 million in the 12,000 madrasas.

The private schools tend to outperform their government peers academically, though generally speaking, standards are low across the board, said Tahir Andrabi, an economics professor at Pomona College in California who has studied the trend.

In the big picture, proponents of private schools echo the argument for charter schools in the U.S. — that they can make schools better and children more educated, and in Pakistan's case dent poverty and the appeal of extremism. Still, analysts say they are no cure-all, cautioning that insurgent movements emerge for reasons well beyond a glut of youth with little secular education. "It's better to have private schools than madrasas," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, an academic and outspoken critic of Pakistan's education policies. "On the other hand, a lot of these private schools teach a very high amount of religious content. It's not a full solution."

The Islamia Model School in Qutbal, a town of 5,000 about 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside the capital, Islamabad, opened its doors in 2004, and now teaches 98 children to fifth grade, said owner and headmaster Mohammad Yaqoob Khan, a 52-year-old retired government teacher. Around half the pupils are girls. Students pay an average of $1.50 a month in tuition. The subjects include Islamic studies, but also math, reading and writing, and English, the lingua franca from British colonial times that is still the key to career advancement.

One recent day, children in one of the three indoor classrooms took turns leading the others in learning new English words. "F is for flag!" a girl yelled as she swept a wooden pointer along the sentence on the blackboard.

Like many schools in South Asia, the teaching appeared to be through memorization, not critical thinking. One teacher smacked a boy in the face for misunderstanding a math question. The pupils seemed content, nonetheless. "We have furniture here," said Rimsha Mehmood, an almond-eyed 10-year-old girl who used to attend a government school.

Islamia doesn't have enough room to add more grades, so older students eventually have to turn to the higher-level government schools or find other private schools, Khan said. He said the government system is frustrating because there is little accountability and parents feel they have no voice in their children's education. "We feel that we have influence in private schools," he said. "The parents visit here and ask about their children."

It was a similar story across the town at the Pakistan Public School, which is actually a private school with more than 300 boys and girls and charges nearly twice as much on average as Islamia. But mothers collecting their children after working for hours in the fields said the private option was worth it. "The government schools' standards are quite poor," said Tanveer Bibi, who has two children in the school.

The resources and quality of the various private schools in Pakistan vary widely, even within a town. At the Pakistan Public School teachers can earn more than $25 a month, owner Mushtaq Ahmad Khan said. Islamia pays its teachers less than $10 a month. ("It's pocket change," one Islamia teacher sighed.)

A sliver of Washington's planned aid package will go into private schools, said an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaking on condition of anonymity due to diplomatic protocol. The official declined to elaborate, saying the planning was still in the works.

Qureshi, the Education Ministry official, said he feared that outside donors could end up investing in a sector that has little oversight and often uneven results. Plus, it could spur the already lackadaisical government to do even less. "The private schools are not doing service in the true sense — they are commercial," he said. "If they are strengthened, the public sector will grow more weak."


Useless education

Jobless graduate tally to hit 100,000 in Britain

THE number of jobless university leavers is expected to break the 100,000 barrier this week, heightening fears of a “lost generation”. Tens of thousands of out-of-work graduates from the class of 2009 have joined the 70,000 from last year who have still not found employment, official figures are expected to confirm.

The flood of applicants for the shrinking number of graduate jobs has led recruiters to become increasingly tough in their entrance requirements. Sainsbury’s has joined the growing ranks of companies that will not accept any entrants to its graduate programme with a degree lower than a 2:1, a threshold once confined mainly to elite City firms and consultancies.

Unemployment data to be published on Wednesday by the Office for National Statistics will also show that the total number of jobless under 25 passed the 1m barrier in October, up from 946,000 in August. The number of new graduates unable to find a job means nearly 8% of those aged under 25 with a degree are now without a job.

David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, said the level of joblessness among graduates and other young people was a “national crisis”. He called for the suspension of national insurance contributions for the under-25s and subsidies for employing the young. “A spell of unemployment is bad when young and the longer it is, the worse it is,” said Blanchflower. “We want to do everything to prevent it becoming long-term unemployment.”

The rise in the numbers leaving university and entering the jobs market, with 300,000 graduating this year, has led to increasingly strict selection criteria. In addition to asking for at least a 2:1 degree, companies are demanding strong grades at A-levels and even GCSEs to pick the best candidates. KPMG, the accountancy firm, demands that graduates have at least an A and two Bs at A-level rather than the three Bs it required in 2008. Similarly, Accenture, the management consultancy, has raised the A-level grades threshold graduate applicants must reach from one A and two Bs, to two As and one B. “We’ve done that to manage the volume of applications,” said Julia Harvie-Liddel, recruitment director for Accenture UK and Ireland.

The competition for jobs is illustrated by companies such as the budget retailer Aldi, which received 22,000 CVs for 130 graduate places this year. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the accountants, saw a 35% jump in graduate applications with 12,000 vying for 1,000 jobs.

There is also heavy competition in the public sector. Rachel Cowe, 22, has a psychology degree from Liverpool University and £13,000 of student loans to repay. She would like to work with young offenders but every job application she has made to the prison service has been rejected. “Almost everyone from my course is in the same situation. I desperately want to get my career started but I can’t see things improving. “I might go to Australia and try to get a job there. I’m open to anything at this stage,” Cowe said.

Jackson Almond, 22, has a 2:1 in business studies from Liverpool. He would like to get a job in marketing but so far the most positive reaction he has had from the dozens of companies he has applied to is that they will keep his CV on file for future positions. “It is frustrating that someone who walked out of university with exactly the same degree as me a few years earlier would have walked into a really good job, whereas now that seems impossible,” he said.

Charles Ball, research director at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, said graduate unemployment was at its worst since 1992 when it peaked at 13%. If the current downturn continues, the graduate unemployment rate may continue to rise.

The overall impact could be bigger because in 1992, 160,000 people obtained degrees, just over half the current figure. The expansion of higher education has been fuelled partly by better job prospects and the promise of higher salaries.

Ball warned that the market may not pick up soon. “If we are to follow the pattern of other recessions, the graduate market is unlikely to return to normal until 2013,” he said. Four years from now might be too late for many of today’s graduates. Previous studies have found that graduates who fail to find work are still held back in their forties.


More oppressive British "safety" regulations

No paddling on school trips, children told

Children are being banned from paddling in water during school trips under new health and safety guidelines. Pupils are ordered not to wade into ankle-deep water unless teachers first carry out a full risk assessment and put “proper measures in place”. Staff are expected to check rivers, ponds and the sea for currents and rocks before allowing children to dip their feet. Guidance issued to schools warns that any “impromptu water-based activities” could pose dangers to children – including hypothermia.

The rules were branded “ridiculous” by parents’ groups. It prompted fresh concerns that children’s development risked being undermined by over-zealous health and safety regulations. The recommendations were outlined in a document – available to all 21,000 schools in England – to help teachers organise more school trips. Advice from the Department for Children, Schools and Families is intended to cut red tape, debunk health and safety “myths” and give staff practical tips.

But the guidance prompted controversy after teachers were presented with a series of edicts surrounding swimming and the use of minibuses. It said: “Swimming and paddling or otherwise entering the waters of river, canal, sea or lake should never be allowed as an impromptu activity. The pleas of young people to bathe – because it is hot weather, for example, or after a kayaking exercise – should be resisted where bathing has not been prepared for. “In-water activities should take place only when a proper risk assessment has been completed and proper measures put in place to control the risks”.

Teachers are urged to check the weather, currents, weeds, rip tides, river or sea beds and breakwaters before allowing children into the water. No child should be able to swim deeper than waist height, the guidance added. It said: “Be aware of the dangerous effects of sudden immersion in cold water, also of the dangers of paddling, especially for children or in rough seas.”

Margaret Morrissey, from campaign group Parents Outloud, said: “Wading out into the ocean is one thing but there’s nothing wrong with paddling where the waves break. “Part of children’s learning is to walk along the water’s edge and get your feet wet. There are dangerous currents further out and you stay at the edge.” She added: “I want to see schools and youth groups taking advantage of opportunities that learning outside the classroom can provide.”

But the Department for Children, Schools and Families said teachers had to plan activities carefully. “We are not banning paddling,” said a spokeswoman. “We have seen cases in the past where things have not been planned and assessed for the risk. Unplanned activities around water can be dangerous.”


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