THE other day, someone mentioned that he had decided to move his child from a private school to a public one. Such instances are rare in Pakistan; generally, it’s the other way round. The reason, he said, was that he could not afford the huge fees the private school was charging and the poor performance of his child.
That public schools could become ‘home’ to children whose parents cannot afford the high private-sector fees can be seen as encouraging. But the other part of the story is disturbing: that children’s poor performance in private schools may lead parents to move them to the public sector. These are parents who believe that the return on their investment would be quite low if they paid the high fees that private schools demand.
But so far, the perception is that public schools host low-performing students. This, complemented by trust and quality issues, is what leads parents to focus primarily on private schooling, especially those who can afford it. Private schools have grown exponentially over the last decade and a half. Now, one can see them in almost every main street in the cities. Indeed, some places may have as many as 15 private schools in close proximity.
According to a national education census in 2005, the share of public-to-private-sector enrolment in Pakistan was 68-32pc at that time. Since then, there have been few efforts to calculate the exact share of the private sector in education. However, according to estimates from national education statistics in the last couple of years, the share of the private sector has increased by six percentage points. The share of the public to private sector has now moved to 62 to 38 pc. Considering that private-sector figures are merely projections based on past trends, the actual numbers would present an even more enhanced share for the private sector.
Public schools do not present themselves in a way that attracts parents.
So, what factors have contributed to this exit from public schooling and the shift towards the private sector? Research and media reports have identified a number of issues that lead to the abandonment of public schooling. These include, but are not limited to, overcrowded classrooms, multi-grade teaching, insufficient teaching materials and textbooks, outdated methods of instruction and learning, and the lack of teacher training. Then, there is teacher and student absenteeism, a lack of accountability, shortage of basic amenities and above all, the poor quality of education in public-sector schools.
Private schools are performing much better in terms of the quality of education imparted, which can be seen from the improved learning outcomes of students studying there.
The problem is that the public education system does not present itself in a manner that attracts parents, especially those who can afford private schooling. Attempts to overturn financial barriers like the abolition of school fees in public schools are also not paying dividends, and there is a lack of trust.
Apart from the quality of education and trust issues, a number of other factors also contribute to the decision to choose private schools. The abolishment of school fees in public schools has, on the one hand, made it easy for children from poor backgrounds to pursue an education. But on the other hand, it has also created pride issues. Sending their child to a private school, especially an ‘elite’ one, has become a symbol of a superior class for parents.
Some time ago, a parent was asked the reason for not sending his child to a public school. His response summed it up: “Allah ka diya sub kuch hai hamaray paas, phir kyun sarkari school bhejein bachay ko?” (“Allah has given me everything, why should I send my child to a public school?”) Another parent pointed towards fewer compromises on learning, personalised attention, good feedback and corrective mechanisms, and enhanced accountability as the reasons for choosing a private school over a public one.
Despite efforts to revive public-sector education through the introduction of a number of reforms, public trust in the sector is on the decline. The persona of private schooling is expected to further amplify this in the years to come. It is time serious decisions were made at the policy level to revive the stature of public schools.
Merely increasing the funding for public schools won’t suffice; perceptions of the kind of education imparted, and its quality, need to be improved. To stop the persistent trend of students exiting from public schooling, there is a dire need to build up public confidence in public schooling. This would require presenting a positive image of the sector by highlighting success stories, even as the need to address the challenges of access and quality of education in public schools is looked into.
The writer is a research fellow at the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2016