“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.” So ended Malala Yousufzai’s rousing speech before the UN Youth Assembly on July 12. Malala voiced a call to action to fulfil the universal right to education for every child. With 40 million out of 70 million Pakistani children aged five to 19 not attending school, Pakistan is performing poorly in this regard. Given this, it rightly seems that we have mountains to climb before we can educate all our children.

But this is not a column about how dismal things look, about how our government is inefficient, and how our citizenry is unmotivated. It is about the steps that are being taken in the right direction, especially in Punjab. Here is a look at some of the “good news” from Punjab’s education sector, as Sir Michael Barber, Department for International Development’s (DFID) special representative for education in Pakistan, describes it. Due to a number of interventions, which are part of a larger reform road map, teacher presence and student attendance numbers have shown impressive increases in Punjab. Both the percentages of teachers present and of already enrolled students attending class were greater than 92 per cent in December 2012, up from 72 per cent and 82 per cent in September 2011, respectively. The percentage of schools with functioning facilities has also increased from 69 per cent to 91 per cent in the same time frame. Enrollment has seen increases for the five-to-nine-year age range, but most of these come from kachi (or kindergarten classes) and do not yet extend all the way through primary school. While some areas in Punjab have laudably passed the 90 per cent enrollment mark, others, such as rural areas and southern Punjab, as well as girls’ schools, clearly lag behind. In addition, students are learning more. The latest Annual Status of Education Report, which assessed over 60,000 children from all Punjab districts, reveals significant gains in learning outcomes for both literacy and numeracy. Clearly, there is much more work to be done, but the above indicators show progress.

Under the Punjab Education Sector Reform Programme, annual cash stipends worth Rs1.5 billion are provided to 380,000 girls in grades six to 10 in government schools, in 16 out of the 36 Punjab districts.

A number of policy innovations, fostered by the DFID and led by the Punjab government, have made these developments possible. Greater monitoring of schools has been instrumental in improving teacher presence. This has been made possible by the tireless work done by a revamped programme monitoring and implementation unit. Also key is the Punjab Education Foundation, which enables poor children to attend low-cost private schools for free. There is also the Punjab Educational Endowment Fund (PEEF), established in 2009 to provide merit-based scholarships and assistance in the 16 less-developed districts in Punjab. It has awarded over 41,000 scholarships, worth over Rs2 billion.

A number of government policies specifically target girls and young women. Under the Punjab Education Sector Reform Programme, annual cash stipends worth Rs1.5 billion are provided to 380,000 girls in grades six to 10 in government schools, in 16 out of the 36 Punjab districts. The objective is to improve enrollment and increase retention. The beneficiary girls are given Rs2,400 a year conditional on an 80 per cent attendance rate.

Some of Punjab’s policies and successes will be replicable and some will need to be adapted for the other provinces. The DFID is providing its second-largest funding to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with the expectation that some of these successes can be reproduced there. Balochistan is implementing a programme similar to the PEEF, in a good example of inter-provincial policy learning.

All of the above implies that Punjab is making strides in solving the access issue and in increasing the quantity of education supplied, at least at the primary level. But what about the quality of education? There are serious issues with our curricula and in our textbooks, as well as in how we expect our students to learn from these materials. While it appears that the 2006 curriculum reform recommendations have been incorporated in Punjab’s latest textbooks, there is no analysis yet of the quality of these textbooks. Over the next few weeks, I will be undertaking exactly that task.