Page last updated at 07:49 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 08:49 UK

Pakistan's education battleground

Pakistan's education system has suffered decades of neglect and, with a third of under-nines not going to school, the vacuum is being filled by madrassas or religious schools, as Orla Guerin discovered.

Assembly at a government school

Pakistan spends only 2.5% of its gross domestic product on education. This in a country where half the adult population is illiterate.

Pakistanis are utterly unyielding on one point - hospitality. Since arriving in this country that has become very clear.

"In some regions they'll pick up a gun and threaten you if you refuse to drink their tea." That warning was delivered - with a smile - by an army officer in the tribal areas along the border. It was accompanied, of course, by a tray of refreshments.

Hospitality is a religion here.

So when I arrived at one of the largest madrassas in Pakistan, Darul Uloom Haqqania, there were cold drinks and hot drinks. And after the tea and biscuits, lunch was offered.

I was made very welcome indeed - up to a point.

As a Western woman, even one wearing a headscarf and traditional conservative clothing, I was not welcome to take a look inside the madrassa, and neither were my male colleagues, also Westerners.

So our Pakistani cameraman filmed the classrooms without us. We were told this was for our own protection, that things were tense and the pupils might become angry.

Famous pupil

The madrassa has 3,000 students, or Talibs, and one particularly well-known past pupil, Mullah Muhammad Omar, supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban. He studied there as a boy.

The madrassa is so proud of him, they gave him an honorary degree.

I had come to the madrassa to discuss the issue of reform, something Pakistan has been discussing for years.

Inside the Darul Uloom Haqqania madrassa
Some parents are attracted by the religious education the madrassas provide, others by the free board and lodging given to students

But the cleric in charge, Maulana Sami Ul Haq, insisted there would not be any reform in his school - whatever President Asif Ali Zardari may say.

"This dream has never come true for anyone," he said. "Many leaders took this to their grave and Zardari will take it to his."

The madrassa denies it is preparing a new generation for jihad (holy war). But Maulana Ul Haq says it is up to the students themselves to decide what they do when they leave the school.

Pakistan's government can barely count the madrassas, much less control them. The last official figure dates from 2006, when the tally was 13,000. But there may be double that number, according to another estimate.

Some parents are attracted by the religious education they provide, others by the free board and lodgings.

Government schools

Still the bigger threat to Pakistan may be the teaching, or lack of it, in the government's own schools.

On the outskirts of Islamabad, I met a group of children who had been driven from their homes in the Swat Valley.

I want to get an education and when I finish school, I want to join the army so that I can fight for my country

Mohammed, aged 9

There were boys and girls, up to the age of 10. I asked if they had a favourite song or poem, in which they could all join in. They fell silent.

I put it down to shyness, but an uncle of three of the girls came to his own angry conclusion.

"They've been at school for years," he said, "but they have learnt nothing."

Pakistan spends only 2.5% of its gross domestic product on education. This in a country where half the adult population is illiterate.

'Ghost school'

At a government school perched on a hillside in Punjab, we got a lesson in subtraction.

Boys and girls lined up neatly for morning assembly, in their blue uniforms. They prayed and sang the national anthem before filing into classrooms that were clean and bright, and half empty.

There used to be 180 pupils here, but the number has dropped by half, because there are not enough teachers.

Map of Pakistan

"It's very painful, and I feel extremely sad," said Rukhsana Kausar, the young head teacher, glancing around at the empty seats.

"Our students are very creative, but we don't have facilities like computers and science labs. If we get more teachers, and better teachers, these benches will be occupied."

But there are pupils here with a great hunger for learning, like Mohammed, a nine-year-old who was too thin for his uniform.

"I want to get an education," he said. "I don't want to be illiterate. And when I finish school, I want to join the army so that I can fight for my country. I'd like to fight these Taliban who are harming this country."

The boys-only primary school next door was all but deserted, just one temporary teacher presiding over a class of three pupils.

The permanent teacher left in December.

It is what Pakistanis call a "ghost school". Education is a key battleground, or it could be, but it seems the government of Pakistan has not learnt that lesson.

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