Level playing field?
Education as we know it is a means to transfer the accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next, and take it further. At some point, somewhere, this essential purpose of education got lost.
Last week and the week before saw the O and A Level results prominently displayed in the country’s newspapers. A largely urban phenomenon within the education market, it affected the journalists sitting in English language newspapers. Hopes and expectations were writ large on the faces of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and young students doing internships at these newspaper offices.
As the results were announced, the anticipation gave way to screams of joy or bouts of depression depending on the number of As or A*s the students got. This battle of grades was getting on everyone’s nerves. Do we need good grades or don’t? The debate heated up to an extent that we decided to put it all on paper.
Here we are trying to look at the pressures — peers, parents, colleges and universities the students aspire to go, and the job market. Do we indeed leave a choice for the poor student? Can he afford to underperform and still live with a modicum of dignity?
Those who stand on the ‘for’ side of the debate — those who stand for good grades — do have a point; in fact many points. We don’t have a choice, they say, because the higher education institutions demand grades and so do the employers. Besides, they suggest, the drill inculcates a sense of hard work and perfection that stands you in good stead.
Perfection is what the opponents of good grades essentially abhor. The number of As mean what, they ask. A child scoring A in 16 subjects means he or she excels in everything. Or nothing. How are we going to reconcile this supposed perfection with an imperfect world.
Besides, in this medley of A graders, how do we recognise the reader, the poet, the story-teller, the actor, the writer. And the thinker. Yes, the thinker who thinks about others around him and not just himself as the highest achiever. Sadly, the education market that we have set up is all aimed at the individual who is disconnected from the collective.
you grouse at the thought of being evaluated
By Jazib Zahir
Over a decade ago, my world was confined to the hallowed brick walls of Aitchison College. Each day was initiated by the morning assembly where legions of young men stood in silence while pearls of wisdom were showered upon them by the Albus Dumbledore-esque headmaster. One such morning, upon returning from a trip to our peer schools in Singapore, he proclaimed, “In Singapore, I visited a school where every single student cleared his Cambridge examinations with a perfect score. We may be the best in Pakistan but we are living in a fool’s paradise. People in Singapore line up to enter a bookstore. The only time Pakistanis make a line is at a fast food restaurant.”
And so the gauntlet had been thrown. If we were going to compete with this monolithic race of Singaporeans, we were going to have to roll up our sleeves and find a way to ace every examination that came our way. There was a time when Chief’s College was a land for disciplining young princes. Now the mantra of the moment was “An A is an A and a B is nothing”. Those who produced impeccable scorecards were decorated with regal blue blazers and their pictures adorned the entrance corridor of the main building.
Over the years, this spirit has morphed into an obsession as schools around our country coax young minds into churning out ever superior grades and scores for bragging rights and as testaments to their institutional excellence. Those like Ali Moeen Nawazish who subject themselves to daily 12-hour study sessions and produce record breaking results have earned a spot on billboards and prime time television.
Behind this façade of glory lies uneasiness in some minds. Is our obsession with grades just not a sign of our superficiality? But ask the students who continue to raise the bar of cerebral excellence and they will furiously disagree. Consider the case of Rabiya Ather, a brilliant young lady who was recognised by the Cambridge board as being the overall best candidate in O levels in Pakistan. She served as headgirl of Lahore Grammar School Defence and is jetting off to Harvard very soon. “Honours and rewards are only the apparent benefits of academic achievement,” she says. “In achieving my academic record I have had to discipline myself and effectively manage my time. Hence the path to good grades has equipped me with good habits that will be beneficial throughout my life.” She also credits her focus on grades with having bestowed upon her a profound attention span and a sense of inner confidence.
Even years after they appear for these examinations, students find that the grades they earn remain a critical component of their profile. Consider Usman Qureshi who completed high school in Pakistan before graduating from the London School of Economics. He eagerly applied for full-time positions at the most prestigious bastions of global finance like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. He expected to be awarded with a position based largely on his personal interest in global markets and active community involvement. But to his consternation, the interviews revolved largely around his college and school scores. Usman had received a solitary B in his school career yet each round of interviews seemed to return to that spot on his record and demand a justification. Now when he mentors younger students, Usman warns them that an impeccable transcript is the key to the most desirable jobs.
The mentality is justified by Mahmood, a senior manager at a leading mobile company of Pakistan. When he considers hiring someone new on his team, he starts by inquiring about their university scores and is particularly keen to know how applicants fared in their O and A level examinations. “I have less interest in their activities and personality because those are just not quantifiable,” he says. “The reason I want to look as far back at their school record is because a solid performance tells me they are sound in the rudiments of writing, communicating and problem-solving which are critical to the job. Most of all it tells me they were conscientious even when they were young and that convinces me they have the professional maturity to succeed.”
You would think that the academic superstars of today carrying the onus to score ever more As would have less time than their predecessors to dabble in poetry, engage in rhetoric or show valiance on the sports field. But at any of our major schools you will find that it is the best at academics who are serving as roles models in every field. They are the ones who eschew sleep on Sunday morning to go pick up trash on the banks of the canal. They are the ones who win us accolades at the World Debating Championships. They are the ones who are writing novels, helping blind ladies cross the road and launching websites to enhance the softer image of Pakistan. “I feel the students whose minds are trained to go for an A are the ones who have the discipline and motivation to succeed in all walks of life,” says a student counsellor who is part of the Beaconhouse School System.
And, it would be wrong to assume that the love for numbers is purely a Pakistani obsession. Educators in the United States continue to urge their children to emulate nations like China and India that are catching up with the developed world through an emphasis on education. Famed writer Thomas Friedman says, “Parents used to tell their children to finish their dinner because children in Africa were hungry for their food. Today they should tell their children to do their homework since children in Asia are hungry for their jobs.”
You may mourn the loss of the human soul in the face of ever growing emphasis on scores. You may gripe at the lack of transparency in such awards. You may lament being reduced to a number. But how can you grouse at the thought of being evaluated on your academic performance over your appearance, pedigree and social connections? Sounds like a true meritocracy to me.
Soul not scores
That a child suddenly
becomes a scorecard or a trophy to show others is very disturbing, and
By Ali Sultan
Two days ago, a newspaper supplement was spread on our office glass table. It was rather depressing, two pages filled with photographs of A Level students, with the word “Congratulations” in bold, and hundreds of As and A*s beneath their names, with no sign of a B or a C in sight.
The depressing thing was that all of them looked anonymous, robots in fact, the same sombre expressions, the same As in rows and columns nearly engulfing the photographs. The only thing differentiating one from the other was a name, a face and, God willing, we would want to remove even those if we had the power, the As, the A*s remaining, staring us in the face, reminding us that these ones are the best, making us believe that these ones when herded towards a slaughterhouse called life will remain unharmed, as they are blessed, their As dangling around their necks like crucifixes.
A few days earlier, two of our interns looked as if someone very close to them had died. Both of them had got the As, the A*s in their O Level exams but also a few Bs and it stung. Both of them wanted to retake some exams, so they would get As in them as well. A perfect scorecard, a guaranteed airline ticket to nowhere, a satisfaction of being perfect.
Understandably, there is a structure to education. In essence it is how well you understand a formula, a theory, a piece of literature and how well you can reproduce, or expand on its nature.
I have nothing against education or knowledge. Seeking both should be voracious activities in a world that seems to be growing smaller by the minute but also more complex by the second. My problem is with perfection and its rather sinister underpinnings that seem to ravage our society, take anything from politicians to roads, from creative expression and education to morality and religion, everything should be perfect, A-class or it shouldn’t.
The very fact that a child suddenly becomes a scorecard, a trophy to show others is in fact very disturbing; parents cannot be primarily blamed for this. It is as they say the survival of the fittest, or how the society spins. But, I am sorry, a child is not a scorecard, he or she is not named A or A*. All parents with kids who get the As or don’t should realise that a child is a person, with bones and blood running through veins that they created, that the kids evolve too and have the ups and downs like all of us, and they will get somewhere because if a parent is true, he or she should teach them that life and to live it is of utmost importance not a scorecard.
I am not going to reproduce Ingmar Bergman’s quote here about a higher power, which is deliciously vicious, but in essence what he says is that humans cannot be perfect in anything and there really isn’t any need to be. The point is that in both larger terms and intimate interactions, the world as it is, is not perfect. It’s a mess of haphazard connections and theories and things that stand on weak, crudely constructed, structures willing to collapse at a moment’s notice. That way, a perfect education and an imperfect world always seem to exist in a disconnect.
The last and most interesting point struck me while reading an interview of American culture critic Luc Sante. The interviewer asks him if a subject looks promising but leads nowhere, does he most often attribute the difficulty in deepening the subject’s mystery to the subject, to himself, to chemistry, to process, or to something else. His answer was: “These days I seldom have subjects that lead nowhere because one thing experience has taught me is that enthusiasm will not make a piece. Only the existence of a problem will. I discovered this years ago when I was a movie critic for a monthly, so that I might see thirty or forty movies in a month and had to pick one or two to write about. The ones that made good subjects were the ones I couldn’t resolve emotionally or intellectually after leaving the theater. If there was a problem I would have to work it out on paper, and that made for the sinew of the piece. The same logic applies pretty much to all writing, it seems to me.”
Yes, obviously, Sante is talking about the process of writing, but there is a subtle analogy here. Read his answer again. What springs out is the phrase “…only the existence of a problem will” and that my friends is the point. What this utter fixation with perfection, with rows and rows of the same grade tells me, at least in terms of statistics, is that there seems to be no existence of a problem. I cannot tell what a child’s passion lies in — there is no DNA structure, an A here and a D there, a curve to at least say that there is some kind of personality that emerges in a scorecard, a face, a name. Some kind of weakness, a problem that needs to be pondered on, a trait that needs better understanding. The ‘A’ fixation seems to be ignoring the fact that these kids are people, humanity, imperfection. Not robots gleaming out with As in the dark.
O and A
Level are a clash of many forces – teenage angst, parental
By Sarah Sikandar
A for admiration, B for bright future, C for confinement, solitary that is; U is for unending damnation – among the many ways, the CIE results can be read. The excitement that begins with the outset of the O 1 session ends with the stressful and frantic anticipation of the results. And hola! – five years of endless cribbing, whining, crying and day-dreaming, the day comes which everyone has been waiting for (including the aunty next door). What the student feels at the end of it is identical to what James Joyce’s protagonist feels in Araby – “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
What’s this new-age obsession with grades, anyway? The moment students are on the other side of high school, the house takes the form of a concentration camp with a new set of rules to regulate the now high school student. No time is wasted in allowing him to indulge in the newly-acquired status of being a responsible grown up. Parents regiment his life seen by the children as this Nazi indulgence in sadistic pleasure seeing their own offspring’s suffering in the name of education. If you are a parent, don’t stop reading.
“Up until now, his grades were his grades; now his grades are more mine than his,” says Irum, a working mother, whose son will be joining O Level this year. “How he performs in O Level reflects on me as a parent. This is the culmination of the ten years he has been going to school. More than the students, the parents are pressurised.” For all those students who thought they had a lot in common with the poor, helpless Jews, find a better excuse.
Sadia’s son just passed O Level with, let’s say, colours that didn’t fly that high. “I don’t think pressure works at all. I feel bad for making my son go through all that, especially if this is the result he could come up with.”
She has decided to just put the needed pressure to get him to work. Then again, who decides what amount of pressure is necessary?
“I don’t bother about the parents that much. They want good grades, how you do that is not really their concern. It is the khala jees and aunty jees which is more disturbing,” says Kamran, waiting to join his peers in A Level soon.
“Some students perform very well under pressure, while others give up. While the latter will involuntarily give up, the former is going to step up his act the moment he feels the walls closing up on him,” says Aaron Edgar, an A Level student in Lahore. “O Level is not that big a deal but by the time you are in A Level the pressure climbs up a lot because college applications and scholarships are equally important.” Aaron’s feather in the cap, he believes, is all A*s without any tuition, something he believes is close to impossible.
Parents being parents are well-versed in the art of not always exhibiting their concern over the child’s education. It is done subtly through discreet changes aka manipulation on the part of the parent trying to get their kids to study without forcing him in the corner. Indirect tactics like parents appreciating aunty Sheela’s daughters’ high scores, cribbing about increasing expenses, spending on their children’s education, politicians without sound values and good education are just some pointers for parents’ modus operandi.
“Financial pressure is probably the most important thing here,” says Wali Haider, who has just cleared his O Level exams. “Finances is a very touchy area. You have little choice but to study because your scholarships depend on the grades you get. I have been told by my parents where they can afford to send me and it is certainly not where they want to send me, so I have to study for where I want to go.”
Ayesha Hamid, an A Level students from Lahore, recalls entering the O Level. “We were told that now that we were in O Level we must be able to deal with the huge amount of syllabus and daily homework. So the final Cambridge exam seemed to me like a monster. On my first exam I thought I was going to faint – acha ho ga k nahin, A aye ga k nahin. Parents’ and teachers’ hopes all riding on the final exam.” She believes it’s hard to handle this pressure for three long years and teachers go overboard.
It’s easier to be down on teenagers, the grades, the music, the clothes. This anxiety-driven culture seems to be increasing pressure at the cost of their confidence in their abilities and ambitions. But for every student who feels he is alone in his predicament, there is a parent who is wishing there was someone he could share the burden with. Excitement is a boat sailing far off leaving you on the island of textbooks, assessments and yelling teachers.
Are there more takers for A-graders in the market?
By Saad Hasan
When 23-year-old Abdullah Shahwani graduated from a private engineering university in March 2010, he was sure of finding a good job quickly. He is a gold medalist who topped in the Electronics course with a GPA of 3.7. But a year on, he is still on the lookout. Disgruntled, the boy has now decided to leave for Qatar.
“I had a laidback attitude. I thought the hard part was done with and any big organisation would hire me considering my grades,” he tells TNS. “My fault was I never paid attention to making friends.
“Networking is very important,” he adds. “Those small gatherings at a friend’s place help you build contacts.”
Eldest amongst his siblings, Shahwani has been working as a technical support officer for a cellular service provider for the past six months. For him, the monthly salary of Rs 16,000 falls far short of his expectations.
Tens of thousands of students graduating from different universities in Pakistan every year face the same dilemma. In the race for achieving better grades, young men and women miss out on the bitter reality of life — that it’s a dog-eat-dog world waiting for them outside.
Rukhsana Asghar, who runs a recruitment consultancy Fulcrum, says that organisations aren’t looking for bookworms. “It is so often that I meet a candidate who has a 4 GPA but lacks confidence.”
The drive to move forward, interpersonal skills, ability to work with grace under pressure, making friends and polite manners are more important than an excellent report card, she adds. “I have been the head of HR department at leading international banks [in Pakistan] and, trust me, good grades do not mean you’ll get the job.”
Over the years, hundreds of private schools, colleges and universities have opened up across the country. The number of courses being offered has increased and the ways of teaching have become more sophisticated.
“What we recruiters really see in a person is the way he or she has been brought up. As for the teachers, the quality has declined. How many PhD lecturers are there at the universities?” asks Rukhsana.
In the absence of a concrete database, it is hard to establish how many high graders actually end up at senior posts in leading organisations. However, it is safe to say that outstanding academic records at school and college take a student to one of the few good universities.
In Pakistan, rozee.com.pk is said to be the largest platform where employers and employees interact. Muhammad Mauz, its regional sales manager, says that companies are increasingly shifting towards tier 2 and tier 3 universities to meet their human resource needs.
“Most of the jobs are available with the small and medium enterprises (SMEs),” he says. “There is no shortage of jobs. But the firms can’t seem to find the right people.”
But opportunities for topnotch students graduating from institutions like LUMS seem to be shrinking. “We have 12 large multinational companies, which offer around 100 internships a year. And, a LUMS graduate wants nothing less than that,” Mauz adds.
Farooq Rehmatullah, former chairman of Oil and Gas Development Company Limited and Shell Pakistan, was an average student all his life. “I seriously started to think of better results at the university level.”
Academic qualification plays its part only at the recruitment level, he says. “For career growth, professional performance is more important. At senior-level appointments, grades hardly matter.”
There seems to be no dearth of students who achieve outstanding results and top both domestic and international examinations. Yet, Pakistan lacks success stories about new business ventures.
Ali Moeen Nawazish made his fellow countrymen proud when he secured 22 As in A-Levels, in the year 2009, setting a new record. Interestingly, he is not a proponent of “studying too much”. “Students have this misperception that they need to study all the time,” he says, talking exclusively to TNS. “I was part of a music band in my school, besides I was the founding editor of a newsletter. I had a modified car and went out for rides, partying with friends.”
Competition to beat each other is taking its toll on students as well, Nawazish says. “Take a look at the way the schools glorify their high achievers, by taking out broadsheet supplements in leading newspapers. Who wouldn’t want their name there?” he asks.
The Cambridge system of education is supposed to develop the students’ imagination and cognitive skills, says Nawazish who has recently joined Jang Group as its Youth Ambassador. “It has also turned into rote-learning.”
Even at A-Levels, the questionnaire of a certain course can be changed to a certain limit. Crazy rote-learners will excel in such a system anyway.
Senior Recruitment Consultant at Executives Network International Syed Ali Azhar says high grades at school level tend to make a prospective employee appear nerdy and arrogant. “There are no takers for ‘attitude’. Good manners are more important for us in making selections.”
He sums up the discussion by citing the attributes of the best candidates for a job in the following words: “A client once asked me to find me boys and girls who look good, talk good and smell good. That is about it.”
High scores in O and A Level don’t always ensure a safe passage to good colleges, here and abroad
By Ammara Ahmad
In the last few years, increasingly, many O and A Level students in Pakistan have brought such exquisite grades that it seems nothing can stop them short of touching the stars. But just two years down the lane, the ride becomes bumpy when the time for college admission comes.
Most of them aspire to go abroad — if not immediately, then in the long run; if not for education, then for work. But few scholarships at the bachelors’ level are available and those whose parents do not have much “dough” (as Holden Caulfield puts it) have to reconcile themselves to the Pakistani higher education systems. Education at some institutes is perhaps more flexible compared to the other more conservative institutions. This step down from the foreign to local system is often disappointing.
In O and A Level, diligence and intelligence are rewarded. But this is not necessarily the case in many of our universities — where nepotism, favouritism and flattery often carry the day. In the four-year bachelors courses offered here, a significant component of the pedagogy still relies on rote-learning and evaluation is often based on memorised answers to long, subjective questions.
But all is not lost for the O and A Level students who decide to stay back. For local admissions, they have to get an equivalency for their O Levels (and both O and A Levels if they have taken both). The O Levels equivalency draws a cumulative score of only the best six subjects. Moreover, while the O Level curriculum is relatively innovative and rigorous, even average and mediocre grades like Bs and Cs translate into the coveted first division, much harder to attain in the local system. Also, while the larger colleges like LUMS, UET, IBA have a big and bright pool to choose from, colleges slightly less prestigious usually give these students full preference in interviews and admission processes.
The economic recession everywhere has further dimmed the hopes of many by reducing financial aid — especially for foreign students. There is a natural discrimination between those who can pay and those who cannot. The former have a better chance of getting in with equally good grades. But academic performance in your high school is not the only criterion, especially at American colleges. 16 As, of course, have a better chance of landing you in Harvard than 9 As, but “grade inflation” throughout the world means that colleges have to rely even more on other criteria like extra-curriculars.
Many Pakistani schools have enhanced access to extra-curricular activities for their students. From teaching foreign languages like French and German, introducing sports like Rugby, and encouraging parliamentary debates the schools have it all these days but still lag behind the developed world in terms of opportunities and infrastructure. Music, fine arts, performing arts, and most important community service and volunteering could be stressed more. What most children in Pakistan hear of and think about in their late teens, the average western student has already been exposed to much earlier. Plus international organizations (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), media outlets and arts/sports organizations hardly have any scholarships, internships or apprenticeships for high school students here, unlike the West. Whereas most top schools in Pakistan are obsessed with academics, other countries are increasingly turning towards well-rounded students with ambition, creativity and leadership skills.