In the previous blog (part 2), I introduced the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). I looked at its contributions to development and education in Pakistan with a particular reference to the Aga Khan Schools operated by the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) in remote and underserved regions such as Chitral.
In this blog, drawing on the data from my PhD research project, I discuss some of the priorities of the Aga Khan Schools for educational development in Chitral in particular, and Pakistan in general. In doing so, I analyse how the Aga Khan Schools’ efforts contribute to the Education 2030 agenda articulated in SDG 4, aiming to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
Aga Khan Schools in Chitral: priorities for education development, and the SDG 4
The mission of AKESP is “to enable many generations of students to acquire both knowledge and the essential spiritual wisdom needed to balance that knowledge and enable their lives to attain the highest fulfillment.” Within this faith-inspired vision for educational development, the students are expected to use knowledge/education to improve their standard of life and that of the community and the wider society.
With the core purpose of “reaching out to inspire better lives,” the Aga Khan Schools offer quality education, in line with the AKESP vision – “a dynamic learning organisation achieving excellence.” The education in these schools contributes to AKDN’s broader goal of improving the quality of life of individuals and their communities. I have previously discussed that within AKDN, quality of life and education goes beyond the neoliberal logic of economic benefits to embrace a broad approach to life (see part 2). In their educational endeavours, the schools are encouraged to follow distinct values such as “respect, fairness, integrity, passion, rigor and creativity.” These schools aim to produce young people who are ”confident, critically conscious, creative, lifelong learners, who are active and ethical citizens for the pluralist world.”
With these objectives and values in mind, AKESP sets priorities for education at organisational levels for the network of Aga Khan Schools. These priorities shape the programs and practices of all schools. The schools in Chitral initially addressed the acute need for girls’ education and then broadened their focus to education for all. One of the Aga Khan School heads, who took part in my research project, indicates the schools’ evolving priorities over time:
As this discussion illustrates, gender equity has always been a concern and a priority for Aga Khan schools. The organisational policies (e.g., the school equity policy) direct the schools to ensure “equitable access to girls and boys” and to “eliminate gender discrimination by promoting gender equity [through] all the programs, practices and procedures” (School policy document, 2016, p. 45). AKESP’s practices have led to a shift in parental attitudes over recent decades. There is some degree of increased acceptance of the importance of girls’ education in the community. However, some schools still face issues from parents with regard to their gender equity practices. The broader cultural norms in Chitral, like the broader cultural context in Pakistan, favour boys as compared to their female siblings. Boys enjoy more autonomy and privileges, whether it is ownership of family property or investment in access to quality education. One of the school heads notes:
To tackle the issue, the Aga Khan Schools put girls’ admission at the forefront. One school head argues that preferencing girls is a strategy to ensure gender equity/equality. In the absence of such stringent practices, the social and cultural norms in communities would marginalise girls:
AKESP’s gender equity practices address target 4.5 of the SDG 4, which aims to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.” This blog is addressing SDG 4, but it is important to acknowledge here that it is the SDG 5, which dedicatedly addresses gender equality.
Another of the Aga Khan Schools’ key features is focusing on early childhood education and development (ECED). The schools provide an inclusive environment for learning and development to children from the age of three within the school premises. In some cases, the schools make alternate arrangements for ECED closer to the communities known as satellite campuses. At the national level, AKESP runs a three-year pre-primary program: pre-primary I, II, and III, for the students aged 2– 3, 3 – 4, and 4–5, respectively. In the Chitral region, the schools run a two-year pre-primary program, pre-primary II and III, for children aged 3 to 5. Running pre-primary I is not feasible because children aged 2 – 3 cannot access schools due to the rugged terrain and harsh weather conditions.
The emphasis on ECED is based on recognising that the early years are critical for children’s development. The inspiration for ECED primarily comes from His Highness, the Aga Khan himself, as one of the school heads argues:
A school head working in a remote valley of Upper Chitral describes the importance of ECED:
Aga Khan Schools in Pakistan have two key goals focused on ECED experiences. These include preparing early-year students for a smooth transition to the next level and increasing access to quality education. The ECED practices of AKESP directly address target 4.2 of the SDG 4, “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”
One of the crucial reasons why many children, particularly girls, cannot access education in many rural areas in Pakistan is a lack of schools. However, in Chitral, public and private schools have seen significant growth during recent decades. As a result, the primary focus of the Aga Khan Schools has recently shifted to ensuring quality and inclusive education. A school head states:
For improving the quality of education, the AKESP continues to focus on inducting quality teachers and school heads and on their continuing professional development. Concurrently, the organisation strengthens support mechanisms to schools and has been upgrading infrastructure and teaching resources, including Information and Communication Teachogies(ICT). Due to these developments/improvements, the Aga Khan Schools continued to facilitate student learning through various remote learning programs during the pandemic in most schools in the remote valleys of Chitral and the nearby region of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).
In this blog I looked at some of the organisational priories for Aga Khan Schools and their relevance to SDG 4. In the next blog, I will discuss some of the enrichment programs that aim to address certain goals, bringing a particular global perspective to education trends into the local context. In doing so, I articulate how these programs contribute to the SDG agenda which guides this series of blogs.