As policies go, the PTIís education policy is a commendable effort. Its six-point education emergency plan leads with the rallying cry of `one education system for all.í There is little doubt that Pakistan today is perhaps one of the most inequitable societies on the planet and the education sector, as it is presently configured, is more a part of the problem rather than the solution.

A small percentage of schools catering to the elite provide education of some quality but for the great majority schooling Ė whether in the public or the private sector Ė adds little value either in terms of personal development or prospects for advancement. So, there is something to be said for the focus of the PTIís policy on quality as well as equity. The emphasis should be not so much on uniformity ie one system for all, as on devising of a strategy for cumulative and sustainable improvement in the quality of education provided by government schools.

An important element in this strategy could be high schools that the policy proposes to turn into focal points of management of primary and middle schools. This needs to be developed further to make it possible for high schools to serve also as cluster resource schools responsible for the professional development of primary and middle school teachers in the area. The cluster approach has already gained some ground in different provinces, not least in Punjab through the directorate of staff development (DSD).

In the context of learning, one of the issues rightly emphasised by the policy is that of the medium of instruction in our schools. The language divide in our education system not only reflects a major societal fault line, it serves to perpetuate the existing division.

Let us take a closer look at what the PTI is proposing in terms of language and learning. The party wants Urdu and/or oneís mother tongue to be the medium of instruction in all public and private schools up to class 8 in all provinces. Language transition is to be phased in, between Class 9 to Class 12. English and Urdu will be taught as compulsory languages from Class 1 to 12 with special efforts being made to improve teaching and learning in English. The policy emphasises that the language of higher education in will be English.

Language acquisition is a complex process as is that of language transition. So, yes the switch from the mother tongue or proximate language such as Urdu can be made at the level of class 8, or possibly earlier, depending on various factors. But in some ways the more important point being made in the policy document is that of teaching English and Urdu as compulsory subjects from Class 1 to class 12.

Oneís mother tongue or the first language, Urdu and English have different and important purposes to serve in our educational setting. The discussion has to be about the role of a given language, the methodology used to teach it and the stage at which it needs to be taught.

There is a general consensus that a childís cognitive ability is best developed at the earliest stages of schooling by the use of the home language or the mother tongue. According to experts in the field, a child of around five years of age, at the time of starting school, has a considerable vocabulary in his or her home language.

To build upon this resource in the initial stages of schooling is to enhance the childís capacity to learn. Far from being a zero-sum game between say the home language, the national language and the global lingua franca, a start in school with the home language will contribute to the cognitive development of the child who can then learn any other language with greater ease.

As we all know there are exceptions to this route, particularly where children are exposed to what constitutes the immersion method. Children from elite households, for instance, have far less of a problem learning English, not simply because they go to well-resourced English medium schools (that is part of the equation) but because outside the school they are immersed in an environment in terms of family, peer group, video games, reading material, etc so that English is effectively rendered the first language. But, we can well imagine how limited this number is.

For the rest English without the appropriate guidance in school and the absence of any support mechanism at home becomes more of a submersion experience. There can be little doubt that this contributes to the propensity for rote learning and the underdevelopment of critical thinking and analytical skills.

So, in terms of a language policy for the education sector, the PTI is on the right track. Going from the primary level to that of higher education, the medium of instruction needs transition from the mother tongue to Urdu and then to English, while the latter two languages continue to be taught throughout as subjects.

So, letís say if the student has been taught the subject of English well for a period of eight years he or she should have little difficulty in studying various subjects in English subsequently, ie, switching to English as a medium of instruction at this stage. But, this begs the question: how will we ensure the availability of teachers with the requisite skills for teaching English as second or foreign language, in large enough numbers? Among the special initiatives that the policy lists there is an English language programme for the purpose of producing teachers in adequate numbers. Technology and new methods of teaching can also help. But, this is a formidable task and the implementation will be far from easy or simply. It is important then to be realistic in phasing any such initiative.

And very briefly, while the policy commitment to teacher training is well-taken, the quality of the general education of the teacher matters more. This is made amply evident by the problem of inadequate knowledge of their subject of specialisation among many of the teachers. So, improvement in the quality of education provided by the colleges, responsible for the education of those who are to become teachers, is an urgent need.