Public schools are—or should be—a big issue for Pakistan. The country is very poor. It isn’t a major oil producer, nor does it have much in the way of other natural resources. Other countries in similar circumstances, like South Korea, have created a competitive advantage by investing heavily in improved “human capital.” That means public education. You build up from the primary schools to secondary schools to technical training schools to universities. Furthermore, developing countries can’t afford to ignore any segment of the school-age population in this drive for prosperity. As was the case with the American and European public schools systems created in the 19th Century, girls and boys both have to go to school. Education is only part of the solution to national and individual poverty, but it is a vital part.
Pakistan needs such a basic school system: about one-quarter of its population is aged between 5 and 16 years old. It doesn’t have one.
Almost half of the school age population doesn’t go to school at all. Almost all of the children not in school are girls. The law says that they are supposed to go to school. But imams and parents say that girls should not go to school. The government doesn’t bother or doesn’t dare to enforce the law.
Test scores for primary school students matter most in a country building up its schools from the bottom. In Pakistan, about half of 10 year-olds score at the level of 6 year-olds in language mastery, at the level of 7 year-olds in arithmetic. How do you make only one year or two years of progress in five years of school?
You turn the schools into a political machine, that’s how. Right from the establishment of independence in 1947, Pakistan has botched its public school system. The school system has always been under-financed relative to needs. Then much of the funding has been diverted into the pockets of crooked politicians and their bureaucratic clients. Half of public primary schools have no electricity. Forty percent have no working toilets. A third have no drinking water.
Jobs as school teachers became a plum awarded to political supporters and nephews. Usually the teacher’s salary goes to the man who got him the job, while the teacher sells off whatever school resources fall into his grasp and takes another job. So, Pakistan has schoolrooms with students, but without teachers or books or desks. In the 1970s and 1980s the national government played to a rising religious tide by “Islamizing” the school curriculum.
Everyone knows that the schools are a disaster. Malala Yousafzai was campaigning against the many failings of the school system when she came to the attention of the Taliban. Many powerful people have a vested interest in the disaster continuing. Is it fair to ask if the government of Pakistan put the Taliban up to shooting Malala Yousafzai so that it wouldn’t have to do the work itself?
Pakistan isn’t the only developing country with a disdain for public education or for school girls. Aravind Adiga’s novel of contemporary India, The White Tiger, scalded Indian opinion exactly because it told so many truths about the country, the schools included. The kidnapping of hundreds of school-girls by the Nigerian Islamist movement Bozo Haram is telling about the attitude of Islamists. The slack response of the Nigerian government is even more telling about the attitude of an elite pre-occupied with stealing oil revenues.
It’s worth comparing these places with Japan, China, South Korea, and even Turkey.
 Mosharraf Zaidi, “How Pakistan Fails Its Children,” NYT, 15 October 2014.
 Yes, I know, but did you ever see that guy on television?