Educating Pakistan

Published July 4, 2016

Imagine Pakistan’s provincial governments, DFID, the World Bank, and other donors trying to push an enormous boulder up a steep hill. They push with whatever strength each one can muster. But the boulder barely moves.

This is the picture that emerges from interviewing dozens of officials and experts involved in the efforts to reform education in Pakistan.

Each provincial government is implementing similar, ambitious reforms but the problems run so deep and wide that parents find little, if any, change.

Punjab has been in the lead of the reform effort.

It has always been the most capable province and it has been an early adopter, embarking on reforms with World Bank support in 2003. Devolution of power to the provinces gave them a fresh start in 2010 that coincided with an influx of aid.

Around this time, DFID got Shahbaz Sharif’s personal commitment for an education reform agenda through McKinsey’s education chief, Sir Michael Barber.

DFID also entered KP. When Punjab kicked USAID out, in the aftermath of the 2011 Salala raid, the latter turned to Sindh which DFID wouldn’t touch.

With a new, insecure PTI government in KP, the 2013 elections reinvigorated the education reform agenda. Punjab and Sindh continue on a relatively constant flight path. Their leaders are not anxious about the next election.

The reform programmes are almost identical. Teachers should be in school and schools should be open. Schools should be habitable (in other words, not dangerous) for children. Teachers should be hired on merit and schools should have some finances of their own to buy educational materials and make small repairs.

The provinces are using massive monitoring to ensure that these reforms are happening. Up to 1,000 monitors visit almost every school in Punjab and KP monthly, recording teachers’ and students’ attendance and the state of the infrastructure.

Punjab has also cleaned up its ghost schools and teachers problem. World Bank, DFID, and Punjab government officials and consultants, as well as independent observers, say that “ghost” teachers is a problem of the past. KP is following closely behind.

Punjab has moved on to the bigger problem - students are not learning anything in school. Their monitors now test kids on their Urdu, English, and Math skills.

Meanwhile, patronage-wracked Sindh is struggling. The education secretary is facing off with teachers. The government’s goal is to have a clean, digital record – replacing mountains of paper – of who is hired, and making sure those people are in their assigned schools.

But only KP has seen an increase in net primary enrolment rates since 2010 – five to seven percentage points depending on the age category – while the other provinces have experienced zero growth. Enrolment rates are the primary measure of success of reforms.

Donors talk about building schools and putting teachers and kids in them, but until Pakistan can change what is happening in the “schools”, the country will continue to host the second largest out of school population in the world.

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2016

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