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Only promises, no action

May 10, 2013

THERE are a number of campaigns running in the country that are talking of making education an ‘election demand’ and an election issue. They are asking people to ‘vote for education’.

There is a basis for these demands and it seems that the debate on education is being given impetus. All parties have given prominent space to education issues in their manifestos. Some have even talked of the need to view the situation in the light of an ‘education emergency’ or have expressed similar imperatives.

Those who have been in government in Pakistan in the past, and they constitute most of the mainstream parties except for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, argue that although much still needs to be done a lot has already been achieved. They point to rising enrolment and literacy rates, give statistics of how many new schools were opened/upgraded during their tenure, the facilities provided, the number of teachers recruited and the scholarships offered.

Despite the stories of progress, the situation remains quite bleak. An estimated 15-20 million children remain out of school three years after the insertion of Article 25-A (right to education) in the Constitution. Surveys show that the quality of education we are giving most of our children, in public or low-fee private schools, is very poor.

Alif Ailaan, an education campaign, gave us access to complaints collected over the last year or so where citizens have been calling a toll-free number to register their complaints/suggestions about education. We have data from more than 16,000 calls. The data, predominantly, highlights the same issues as the major areas of concern that have been talked about for the last many years.

Most of the complaints relate to government schools. Access issues, in terms of non-availability and distance, are still important factors. Concerns regarding quality are linked to teacher non-availability/absenteeism, teacher apathy or poor training of teachers. Lack of infrastructure also figures high, as in the absence of boundary walls, rooms, bathrooms and potable water.

Is our predicament’s only explanation that previous governments have lacked the political will to work on education and have not given it the importance it deserves? With only about 2pc of GDP being spent on education currently, when the state has explicitly assumed the responsibility of ensuring that all five- to 16-year-olds have access to an acceptable quality of education, the explanation seems credible. But it is also a fact that the fiscal space for expanding educational financing is limited. The provinces, even today, spend some 40pc of their budgets on education.

Waste and corruption issues are endemic in Pakistan and in our education system. From the recruitment of teachers, their monitoring/accountability, transfer and posting to corruption in the construction of schools, procurement of books/furniture, the entire system has major flaws. And despite two decades of reforms, a lot of these problems persist.

Civil society is demanding the government fulfil its responsibility towards children by providing education to all, by increasing the funding for education, by making expenditure more effective and by delivering on the quality of education needed. These are all very important. But there is something missing. The failure of the reform efforts so far need to be further investigated. Can the government deliver on what we are asking for and what parties in the past have promised but not done, and that they are again promising to accomplish?

The current bureaucratic structure seems to be ill-suited to the needs of education. Schools need very close and almost constant monitoring, teachers need support but need to be held accountable too. Schools need to be embedded in local communities: these are spaces where our children spend many hours everyday; these spaces need to be a part of our community space and should be treated as such.

Providing for this or even facilitating this, for a variety of reasons, is not what the bureaucratic structure of the government is suited for. We, as a nation, need to develop a new model for how a school should be viewed as an integral part of our communities.

The new model cannot come from the government alone. What the government does, it does through its machinery that is based on the coercive power of large bureaucratic systems. We have seen the government take all sorts of initiatives that looked good as concepts such as school councils, parent committees, management committees, mentoring programmes, cluster models, contract teachers, local hiring of teachers and so on and make a complete mess of them.

This model has to come from civil society and the community. This is not a plea for private education or privatisation of education. The government is responsible for educating all children. But the model we need for achieving this needs to be embedded in local communities and have local support/ownership. Governments seem incapable of developing this. We need to develop such models. In a later article we will talk of some experiments.

Civil society’s demand for education provision and reform is very important and needed. And it is good to see political parties responding to it. But the failure of past reforms seems to tell a bigger story.

Where macro focus on getting more resources and on increasing efficiency is definitely needed, the demand for educational reform needs to be nested in newer and better models of how schools are to be structured and governed. Appreciation of this seems to be missing and until the time this becomes a part of the debate on education reform, the demands for change will remain incomplete.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.