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The Madrassa myth

by Asim Khwaja, guest blogger

The post-9/11 emphasis on Pakistan continues to portray madrassas (religious schools) as a focal point – their rising prevalence the subject of great concern. What is surprising is that this “myth” persists despite evidence to the contrary – that madrassas are in fact not the real revolution in the Pakistani educational landscape but rather it is affordable private non-religious “mom-and-pop” schools that now dot the (rural) landscape.

In a series of papers in the past few years using publicly verifiable data sources and established statistical techniques my colleagues and I have documented this private sector revolution and the relative absence of a madrassa revolution.[1]

Yet reputable outlets like the New York Times continue to emphasize the supposed centrality of Pakistani Madrassas. In a compelling but factually misleading piece on May 3rd entitled “Pakistan’s Islamic Schools Fill Void, but Fuel Militancy” a veteran reporter rehearses a well-known narrative in which government schools are failing and the madrassas are proliferating, providing the only viable source of education for the poor. Private schools, while mentioned, are discounted as “out of reach of most middle-class Pakistanis”. While government schools, much like the public sector in most developing countries, face substantial challenges, the last two claims are simply not correct – they were not in the years around 2001 (as documented by our previous work), and are still not correct.

Using the latest publicly available educational census data, Madrassas in 2005-06 still only accounted for 1.3 percent of enrolled children (In Pakistan’s four provinces), versus 34 percent in non-religious private schools and the remainder in public schools. The graph below shows that while there is indeed some increase in madrassas over time, the far more striking growth is for non-religious private schools.


Moreover these non-religious private schools are increasingly catering to the middle and poor class. With monthly fees less than a days' unskilled wage rate, they are affordable and attract students from even the poorest households. Madrassas are therefore simply not the schools of last resort. For the average Pakistani child, even among the poor living in rural areas and in urban slums, the most likely alternative to a decrepit public school is not a madrassa but a private school, or no schooling at all. Moreover, despite the low fees and low wages (a fifth of public sector teacher wages) and less qualified (local women) teachers, they offer substantially higher quality education than public schools (likely by better incentivizing and selecting their teachers).

In the particular district - Khanewal - highlighted in the New York Times column as a region of particular concern, the school numbers reflect a similar breakdown - 9% madrassa, 24% private schools, and 66% government schools. Moreover, 95% of private schools in this district are coeducational. Interestingly, this trend is true even in the Pashtun-dominated Northwest Frontier Province. In fact, in the Swat valley, which has occupied much media coverage recently due to the Taliban prevalence there, there were 360 such private schools in 2005 compared to 165 madrassas (National Education Census, 2005).

In yet another attempt to clarify the Madrassa myth, my coauthors and I recently wrote a piece on Foreign Policy (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4958) that also highlights the policy concerns that stem from not getting the facts straight. The NYT article was widely recounted by members of the U.S. House of Representatives with suitable outrage during the House Foreign Affair’s Committee hearing on legislation providing a new aid package for Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the proposed  legislation focuses U.S. government attention on reforming madrassas, eliminating those with ties to terrorism and working with the Pakistani government to reform its sprawling pubic school system riven with teacher absenteeism, ghost schools, out of date pedagogy and a deeply problematic curriculum. Yet there is no mention of the mushrooming private sector and the lessons to be learnt from it.

While one may conjecture that the madrassa myth persists since it is politically expedient and offers a simple explanation of recent events in Pakistan, the fact is that the the reality of the Pakistani educational landscape is quite different. Educational reforms that remain focused on madrassas are unlikely to affect the vast majority of Pakistanis and form the basis of “winning the hearts and minds” or of improving the lot of Pakistanis. With Pakistan’s population becoming ever-more dominated by youths, and the need to produce human capital capable of driving a future Pakistani economy, the stakes on getting such basic facts understood and accepted in policy and popular circles could not be higher.

[1] Religious School Enrollment in Pakistan: A Look at the Data (with T. Andrabi, Pomona, J.Das, DECRG World Bank and T. Zajonc, Harvard). Comparative Education Review, Vol, 50, No. 3, August 2006 and A Dime a Day: The Possibilities and Limits of Private Schooling in Pakistan (with T. Andrabi, Pomona, J.Das, DECRG World Bank).  Comparative Education Review, vol. 52, no. 3, August 2008. Also see the LEAPS project website that details more of our research on the Pakistani educational sector at www.leapsproject.org.


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