09 May Your Child Deserves Better – A Letter to Parents – V
By Anjum Altaf
I have been arguing that you need to watch out for the interest of your child because, unfortunately, no one else is doing so. No one else cares whether the education your child is getting is good or bad and whether you are getting a fair return on the money you are investing in your child and paying out to schools as fee or to private individuals as extra tuition to make up for what is being taught badly or not being taught in school at all.
You should be asking yourselves this question: Why do you need to pay extra for private tuition when this was not the case in the past? Isn’t it a sign that schools are doing a poor job of teaching? This is the second aspect I have tried to bring to your attention — that you have to pay attention, because contrary to the expectation of many, the general quality of education being provided by schools is very poor. It is not enough to send your child to school because he or she may not be learning much there at all. A school should not be a place where you park your children while you go off to work because unlike a parking lot for cars, schools can actually damage your child’s ability to learn.
In this regard, I pointed out in my last letter something that is completely wrong in the way children are being educated in their first years in school, i.e., being taught in languages they do not fully understand. I mentioned the fact that there is a huge amount of global evidence on this subject which TCF has now made available for parents in Pakistan enabling them to determine for themselves if what I am saying is right.
In this letter, I want to stay with this very important topic and explore why those who make education and language policy are ignoring all this evidence that has been available for so long. Here, you must pay special attention because the burden for this damaging policy is being laid squarely on your shoulders.
We are told that early education must be in English because it is a response to the overwhelming demand of parents that their children should be taught in that language. As evidence, it is pointed out that parents are willing to pay extra for private ‘English-medium’ schools in preference to those teaching in local languages.
Let us look at this argument carefully and closely. It is true that parents want their children to learn English because in Pakistan it is the skill required for good employment — if you do not know English you might as well forget about getting ahead. I will have more to say about whether it needs to be so in subsequent letters but for the moment one cannot disagree with the logic of parents. Let us accept that this outcome that parents want is legitimate — that by the end of high school their child should have a high level of competence in the English language. But, it is not the case, that parents insist on HOW English should be taught or WHEN it should be taught or that every other subject must also be taught in English. On what basis can parents insist on such a thing when all the global evidence on the topic has not been shared with them? WHAT to teach should respond to the desires of parents but HOW and WHEN to teach is something that needs the input of educationists.
Think about this in the following way: When you go to a doctor you don’t tell him or her how to operate on you nor would you allow a bureaucrat or a politician to tell the doctor how to do so. This is a decision that a professional and honest doctor makes based on his or her experience and judgement. If you feel uncomfortable with the decision, you are free to go to another doctor for a second opinion but you will not allow an amateur to influence the decision on the basis of incomplete knowledge.
Education is similar — schools deal with the mind just as hospitals deal with the body. In the final analysis, you have to seek the input of a professional educator just as you have to seek that of a professional doctor. So the question you have to ask is the following: Is the policy about HOW and WHEN to teach English being made by professionals or by bureaucrats and politicians? Are parents equipped to make this policy if they do not inform themselves about the available evidence? Should you not insist, in the interest of the development of your child, that this decision should be guided by qualified professionals based on all the available evidence?
Another reason for starting education in English that is offered by bureaucrats and politicians is that English is a global language, it is the language of advanced science, and technical literature is only available in it. As a result, if we do not adopt this language and start in it from grade 1, we will be wasting time and will be left behind in the world.
If you reflect on this for only a moment you will realize that this is a very weak argument. For one, we are talking of early childhood education and no high energy physics or molecular biology is taught at that level. Teaching two plus two doesn’t require a text and is much more easily taught through stories in local languages than from a book in English or Chinese or Arabic or some other language that a child has never heard before.
But theoretical knowledge of how children learn is not even needed to expose the fallacy of the argument. Just think about this: Pakistan has been teaching in English, or what passes for English, for decades and has still been left behind to the extent that it cannot even provide clean water or two square meals to half its population. Meanwhile, a country like China that doesn’t bother about English and teaches in its own language has become the workshop of the world, pulled millions of people out of poverty, and is challenging the USA for global dominance. And China is not alone — countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Iran all teach in their own languages and all have galloped ahead of Pakistan whose policymakers still hold out this ridiculous threat of being left behind even when they have actually been left way behind. They should instead focus on trying to find out why Pakistan has indeed been left behind so badly. [Hint: Is it because we have stopped praying five times a day or have failed to memorize the Quran by grade 10 or is it because the policymakers have failed miserably to do their jobs.] Meanwhile, the future of millions of children has been ruined, jobs have not been created for them, and many have had to pay to be smuggled out to other countries where they do work that citizens of those countries do not wish to do themselves.
Think about this: You are allowing people to decide education policy when they are not even able to see the evidence that is staring everyone in the face. And they are peddling these absurd arguments year after year because parents are not willing to challenge them and ask for evidence. I can only repeat the title of this series of letters: YOUR CHILD DESERVES BETTER.
You have to get involved in the education of your child because the ones to whom you have delegated this task have failed miserably at it. And there is really no hope that they will change for the better because they are not suffering the consequences of the damage they are doing. Meanwhile, you and your child are being grossly shortchanged.
Dr. Anjum Altaf
Former Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)
This letter was published in Sindh Courier on May 6, 2021 and is reproduced herewith the author’s permission.