Education takes a backseat to survival in rural Pakistan

The headmaster of a run-down boys' primary school here in this overpopulated southwest Asian city readily admitted that if he were a doctor or engineer, he'd apply for a visa and join the estimated 2 million Pakistanis working overseas.

''Most of us have come into this (teaching) because we can get no other job, '' he said through a translator. ''It's not a respectable job anymore. If we have an offer from any other country, we will move straight away.''

He declined to give his name because ''there's a law we can't give any interviews.''

The public middle school where he's employed has no library or science laboratory. Its 600 students attend classes in two shifts. There are few chairs; most sit on mats on the dusty floor. Teachers take home the equivalent of $50 to

But in this developing country where the literacy rate hovers at a bare 24 percent, this middle school's facilities would rate above average. At least 40 percent of the public schools use the shade of trees as roofs, according to Hamid Nasir Chatta, minister of education in the Punjab province.

''In our country, people don't think education is something they should spend money on,'' said Beulah Shakir, assistant headmistress at Lahore's Lucy Harrison School for Girls. ''We don't receive any private donations. Never. Our parents are only shopkeepers.''

The school's sign lies upside down and forgotten against a brick wall. The classrooms, which used to hold an average of 35 to 40 students in its Christian missionary days before nationalization, now bulge with at least 80 pupils. An addition built last year remains unused since it has no electricity to run the lights and fans.

In rural areas, the situation is worse. Tanzeem Naqvi, a successful executive engineer with the Water and Power Development Authority in the industrial city of Faisalabad, remembered the pains of obtaining an education without classrooms or support from his family.

''It is only through the struggle of the boy that he gets an education,'' he said. ''There was no school. We would sit outside. Whenever there was a rainy day, school was off.''

Naqvi's father, a farmer with little education, wanted his son to be a ''patvari,'' a village revenue officer. Instead, Naqvi went on his own to college, completed two years post-graduate work in England, and today, he said proudly, ''by the grace of God'' he is registered as an international expert with the United Nations.

Pakistan does not have the facilities to translate English-written textbooks into Urdu, and once a student reaches sixth grade he is not prepared to suddenly start learning concepts in English, educators complained.

''If a book is published in New York, within the same week it's published in Japanese in Tokyo,'' observed Mira Phailbus, principal of Kinnaird College, a school for women in Lahore. ''We have to wait to translate that book.''

At least one college professor is tired of waiting, whether it be for a book translation or a promotion. Nseem Butt, an English professor at Lahore's Islamia College, says, ''The change needed is very much related to the political system. There will be a blow very soon.''

The hands of the clock have come to a stop in Pakistani villages where a good majority of the people remain without sanitation, piped water supply, electricity and the basic necessities of life. A child of five is too young to look after cattle, so his parents may send him to school for two years. Often, this is the only education he receives.

''The parents do not encourage them to stay in school,'' education minister Chatta said. ''They start dropping out at seven or eight years. The parents would rather have them look after the livestock.''

''There's a shortage of labor in some villages,'' he adds, ''that sucks these kids into the economy rather than into schools.''

It is not just in the backward villages where the parents block their children's education. In the cities, young girls assist their mothers in cleaning the spacious bungalows of the landowning class, and small boys not more than 9 or 10 years old work in cycle shops to learn a trade. Around the busy bazaar in the center of Lahore, children dressed in tattered clothes beseech passers-by for a rupee or two. They are ''professional'' beggars encouraged by their parents.

''We go door-to-door and ask those parents to send their children to school, but they don't want to,'' said the headmaster of MC Middle School. ''They can make money easier (this way) than sending them to school.''

The attitude toward education is vastly different among middle-class Pakistanis, who prefer to send their children to costly convent schools rather than overcrowded government schools.

Sister Maureen Gibbon, principal of Jesus and Mary Convent School in Lahore, said she interviewed more than 2,000 for this year's kindergarten class. Fifty were accepted.

''Jesus and Mary has an excellent educational reputation,'' she said. ''The standard has gone down in government schools, and there's a great rush for these privately managed schools.''

Sister Maureen described the 106-year-old school as ''privately managed with very many inspections.''

She and other educators worry that President Zia ul-Haq's preoccupation with the Islamization of Pakistan's educational system, particularly his 1979 policy to change the medium of instruction from English to the national language of Urdu in primary grades, will lower already deteriorating standards.

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