At the heart of Pakistan’s education emergency is the lack of reliable data, making it difficult not only to determine the scale of the problem but also to find appropriate solutions. Undertaking the mammoth task of documenting Pakistan’s education landscape is the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a survey that assesses the quality of education in Pakistan. Conducted by an army of volunteers across the country, the ASER exercise demonstrates the determination of ordinary Pakistanis to do what it takes to improve the state of education.
“It is my duty,” says Mohammad Rafeeq, a social worker in the Mianwali area and a volunteer for ASER. “Lack of education is the reason behind poverty and without education there is no humanity. It is my duty to instil a sense of urgency in people to educate their children.”
ASER is an annual survey that measures the quality of learning in Pakistan. Its purpose is to develop a reliable set of data, keeping in mind three objectives: derive reliable estimates of the status of children’s schooling and basic learning at the district level, measure the change in basic learning and school statistics from the previous year, and interpret these results and use them to affect policy decisions.
While this work helps create a comprehensive picture of the quality of schooling in Pakistan, the project has also produced some unintended consequences, inspiring people across the country to become involved in helping alleviate Pakistan’s education crisis.
“In my area they call me Rafeeq ASER-wala,” says Rafeeq. “This year 150-200 people came on their own to ask if they could help with ASER’s efforts. Besides collecting data, we also raise awareness wherever we go about the need to educate children.”
Rafeeq has a personal passion for education and has been working with ASER since 2008. “I myself studied in a makeshift school sitting under a tree. The fact is that you can give a child a book made of gold but that doesn’t mean he’s going to learn,” he says. “It is the teachers who teach, and through our surveys we have managed to identify why so many kids aren’t learning. Hopefully this can lead to a positive change.”
The first ASER Pakistan report, for the year 2008, covered 16,737 children in 11 districts. Since then ASER data collection has expanded its scope, surveying 54,062 children in 32 districts for the 2010 report, 146,874 children in 84 rural and 3 urban districts for 2011, and over 250,000 children in 136 rural and 6 urban districts for the 2012 report. The latest survey, ASER 2013, conducted with the help of 10,000 volunteers, assesses the learning of 263,990 children in 138 rural and 13 urban districts across Pakistan.
ASER’s work is supported in Pakistan by the South Asian Forum for Education Development (SAFED) with the assistance of several local partners. The data is compiled annually and shared with the government, civil society organisations, local communities, the media, lawyers, bilateral and multilateral agencies, and other stakeholders in the education sector. Once the study is complete, results are compiled in various formats including policy briefs, posters, and village- and district-level report cards. These materials are disseminated widely, allowing the data to be used not only in schools and communities but also by decision makers at the highest levels.
“Even when ASER is not conducting a survey, we continue to work towards advancing the cause,” says Sheikh Mohammad Mushtaq, an ASER volunteer from Azad and Jammu Kashmir. “I got involved in volunteering because it is for a good cause, and we can help to provide a full picture of what is happening on the ground.”
Apart from its work with data collection, ASER is informing the Right to Education debate in Pakistan. It has also inspired activism from civil society, local communities and parents, as ASER teams conduct policy seminars and briefings across the country, involving public representatives, government officials and civil society organisations. The goal is to empower all citizens to seek evidence and take appropriate action.
In a country where 25 million children are out of school and most of those who are in school receive an education of poor quality, the work ASER does is critically important. Without accurate data on the quality of education, it is difficult if not impossible to implement meaningful and long-lasting reform.
“Even when I am not carrying out my survey responsibilities, I still strive to create awareness among communities, to help children access their Constitutional right to education,” says Mushtaq. “No one can do this work alone. We have to join hands if we want to change things.”