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.
An hour’s walk after the road ends and vehicles have to be abandoned, in a tiny mountain village called Pehlwan, there is a school in a cavernous concrete room that is a mosque. The village lies above Abbottabad.
Seven students of different grades are huddled on mats on the floor.
I show them a map of Pakistan from their own schoolbook and ask what it is.
“A mountain?” a student hazards a guess.
The girls’ and boys’ primary schools in this village were destroyed by the 2005 earthquake and the reconstruction projects started since have been abandoned.
Concrete skeletons of unfinished buildings – two of 2,000 school reconstruction projects abandoned by contractors in the earthquake-affected area – are situated high on the mountain slope.
But the problem in Pehlwan is not that there are no school buildings. The teachers have found makeshift spaces.
The problem is that there is no education.
Since 9/11, some Pakistani provinces have made strides in education thanks to hard-nosed political will at the highest levels. But so far, the reforms process has focused on low-hanging fruit of Pakistan’s education challenge issues such as teachers’ and students’ attendance and fixing infrastructure.
The ultimate conundrum starts once you have a building with teachers and students inside: how do you get the children to learn?
“Is it more tragic that kids are out of school or that they are in a school and yet illiterate,” asks Dr Faisal Bari, an economist based in Lahore.
That is what the visit to the schools in Pehlwan demonstrated.
In another school in Pehlwan, the teacher has a master’s degree and holds a USAID teachers guide in her hand. Both USAID and Beaconhouse have trained her to teach literacy. But eight months later, her third graders cannot identify the first letter in “Pakistan” in any language.
These anecdotes are consistent with the data. Various research surveys show that over half of the third graders in government schools in Pakistan cannot read or write a sentence in Urdu.
A team of economists have collected data on learning levels through their project, Learning and Educational Achievement in Punjab Schools (LEAPS). According to their data on private schools in Faisalabad, only 33pc of third graders could write a grammatically correct sentence in Urdu in 2014. That statistic has not changed since 2003. By grade 5, the rate doubles to 66pc.
However, these private school students are about two grades ahead of kids in government schools even though their teachers have lower degree qualifications, less training and dramatically lower salaries than government teachers.
It also costs half as much to educate a child in a private school than what the government spends per student in government schools.
Private schools do better simply because teachers show up, according to LEAPS. It is no wonder then that if a parent can afford a few hundred rupees a month for a private school, he or she will spend it. According to federal statistics, nearly 40pc of children in Punjab are in private schools.
“The learning that our schooling imparts in five years can probably be had in about six months,” surmises Haris Gazdar, senior researcher at the Collective for Social Science Research in Karachi.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get kids in schools without addressing the problem of quality learning and jobs,” says Haroon Sethi, deputy team leader of DFID’s Punjab education reform team.
In interviews, experts described the low enrolment in government schools in Pakistan as a rational choice by parents.
“If there are proper schools, I will send my kids there,” says a parent in Pehlwan, “But I won’t send them to schools like these [government schools].”
“Poor parents of children in Pakistan would rather send them to work than school because children learn so little,” says Dr Scherezad Latif at the World Bank, who has a PhD in education.
Punjab’s enrolment and adult literacy rates are behind those of the world’s least developed countries and of sub-Saharan Africa.
This is why Punjab is experimenting with solutions. Ipad-carrying monitors visit schools every month, quizzing grade 3 students in Urdu, English, and math. The highest performing districts are rewarded while the lowest performing districts must answer to Shahbaz Sharif.
KP, like Punjab, is investing in teacher training, re-writing textbooks and strengthening the examination structure.
The desk of the district education official in Abbottabad is piled high with new teacher guides that outline daily lesson objective and activities for every grade level and subject. But it’s not going to be easy or quick to make schools places where kids learn, by just training the existing teachers and giving them lesson plans.
“We’re not at the stage where you can turn 400,000 people into good teachers overnight,” says Sethi, “Their capabilities are low and we still have issues of overcrowding and multiple grades in one classroom.”
It is in this context that the hiring of teachers “on merit” is giving hope to many who are watching the education sector.
“This is the first time that teachers are being hired on merit in KP,” says Salar Khattak who belongs to a teachers union in KP.
Observers say the provinces are discouraging parliamentarians from doling out teaching jobs to political supporters.
“MPAs we talk to say it’s not just difficult but impossible to get their own people in there,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, campaign director at Alif Ailaan.
“The political patronage model of hiring teachers in the Punjab, for the most part, is over.”
Teachers hired on merit are more likely to be motivated to teach. But in the meantime, there has been little improvement in learning.
According to Ali Inam, who is a consultant to a donor supporting the Punjab reform programme, “The Punjab government faces a harder question now: how do we get teachers to teach effectively?”
“To resolve it, they are trying to take on many big issues at once – teacher quality, classroom effectiveness, testing, curriculum and textbooks. They have a lot of support from donor organisations and money is not an issue. But the problem is so big that we’ll see improvement in 10 or 15 years.”
“The education department acts more like an employment agency than a service delivery department,” says a former education secretary for Sindh who asks not to be named.
Pakistan’s education budget has evolved as a slush fund for politicians to generate profits for themselves and political supporters. The bulk of the provincial budgets – around 85pc – are spent on salaries for teachers many of whom are not found in schools.
In Sindh, 40pc of teachers are ghost employees, according to the current education secretary.
“The entire system is patronage-based, not efficiency-linked,” continues the former secretary, “MPAs lose elections when they fail to distribute jobs; not when schools are dysfunctional.”
MPA refers to a member of the provincial parliament.
According to a report by the Society for the Advancement of Education (SAHE): “Historically, politicians have used teacher recruitment as a form of political patronage.”
“Some teacher posted in, say, Chachro in Tharparkar district is not even physically living there. He or she could be living in Karachi, or Hyderabad, or outside Pakistan, but drawing a monthly salary,” explains Nadeem Hussain of the Sindh Reform Support Unit, which is a part of the education department that leads reform efforts.
The SAHE report explains the link between teachers and politicians. First, because teachers are educated, politicians tend to use them as political organisers in rural and semi-urban areas. Second, teachers are posted as polling staff on election days. Finally, teachers unions are associated with political parties – although they don’t necessarily need the parties to exercise political clout.
However, the interference of politicians does not end with the recruitments and postings of teachers.
Politics also plays havoc with the 10pc of the education budget spent on “development”, referring to the budget intended for building and maintaining schools.
“Money is requested for ‘education’ and once it is allocated then the specific needs are figured out,” says Salman Naveed of Alif Ailaan.
This allows politicians to access amounts at will.
“The so-called ‘annual development plan’ does not name a specific location for the schools but makes umbrella grants for 50 or 60 schools at a time,” explains Muhammad Anwar of the Centre for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA), “Throughout the year, the chief minister uses these funds to win over MPAs.”
No wonder then that the bulk of the money is spent in the districts of the more powerful legislators.
“These days, most of the budget is going to Nowshera because the chief minister of KP is from there. Five universities are being established there,” Anwar says, adding “but in Tor Ghar, there is not a single girls’ high school”.
Tor Ghar was a tribal area until 2011 and is today the smallest district in Pakistan.
This leads to an irrational emergence of schools or buildings. “Some villages have three schools and some have none,” points out Managing Director of the Sindh Education Foundation Naheed Shah Durrani.
According to the SAHE report, “In Balochistan, funds provided to members of the provincial assembly are mostly used in the construction of education institutions whose feasibility has not been evaluated. Mostly the incentive is to give the contract to a favourite.”
Yet, despite all the money and political capital that is earned from this ‘development exercise’, the entire development budget is not spent every year.
This unspent development budget reflects Pakistan’s broken budgeting process.
This is because legislators are more interested in spending the money than in playing the oversight role that parliaments normally do in developed democracies.
In the United States, budget lines are parsed out and debated in detail by the members and staff of subject-specific subcommittees, full committees, and then the full chambers. A parallel process occurs in two houses of Congress over the course of a year, and then both houses must agree on one version of the budget. The fight is so intense that the American Congress has shut down the US government 18 times, most recently in 2013.
But in Pakistan – “we have the shortest time for a budget process in the world. Just 14 days. Members don’t have staff and are given huge budget books. They pick out things at random just to participate in the debate,” says Naveed.
Unless Pakistan fixes the way it plans and spends the education budget, doubling it may hurt more than it will help children.
Punjab’s salary budget has gone up by 74pc since 2010 but test scores have increased by only 7pc while there has been zero improvement in Sindh “The idea that more money for education is the only way to put kids in school is a myth that needs to be busted,” says Ahmed Ali, Research Fellow at the Institute for Social and Policy Sciences (I-SAPS).
His view is supported by other experts, who question the popular refrain that doubling the education budget will resolve Pakistan’s education crisis.
According to Naheed Shah Durrani, who until recently served as the education secretary for Sindh, “The debate needs to go beyond ‘more money.’ The money needs to be better managed.”
The truth is that most provinces have more than doubled their budgets since 2010. Sindh has nearly octupled its budget – from Rs23 billion to nearly Rs176 billion.
KP and Balochistan are on their way to tripling their budgets since 2010. Punjab has doubled its budget.
But the provinces which do well are the ones that spend their money well.
“Most people have not done their homework,” continues Ali. “Education departments have more employees in Pakistan than the Pakistan Army,” he said.
Pakistan’s education budgets for 2016-17 total $7.5 billion or Rs790 billion. In comparison, the defence budget is $8.2 billion or Rs860 billion.
The education budget figure includes provincial spending plus the small federal budget that goes to higher education and schools in Islamabad.
The higher spending, however, does not automatically reach children. Without reforms in planning and management, the extra funds are likely to be wasted on hiring tens of thousands of new, non-performing teachers.
Most of Sindh’s new spending has already gone into teachers’ salaries. The province spends at least twelve times as much on teacher salaries than it did in 2010 –going up from Rs7 billion to Rs90 billion in 2014-15, according to budget charts prepared by I-SAPS in their recently released analytical report, “Public Financing of Education in Pakistan: 2010-11 to 2015-16”.
According to KP Education Minister Atif Khan, 55pc of the provincial government’s employees belong to the education department. In Balochistan, 52pc of all provincial salaries go to the education sector employees according to World Bank figures.
But there has not been a corresponding increase on provincial learning assessments. Punjab’s salary budget has gone up by 74pc since 2010 but test scores have increased by only 7pc, according to I-SAPS. There has been zero improvement in Sindh.
Provinces typically over-spend their budget for salaries and under-spend their “development” budgets for building, renovating and maintaining schools.
Last year, Sindh spent 90pc of its development budget, KP spent almost 80pc and Punjab spent less than half. Balochistan’s figures are not yet available but they have typically spent half.
International practice suggests that there are multiple ways to gauge public spending on education besides the percentage of GDP, including: per cent of budget spent on education, nominal education spending and per-student expenditure.
Using the GDP measure, Pakistan under-spends on education in comparison to other countries. It budgeted 2.2pc of its GDP against an international minimum standard of 4pc, according to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2015-16. Alif Ailaan’s estimate was higher, at 2.68pc.
But if one uses other international standards, Pakistan is at risk of over-spending on education.
Unesco recommends that a government spend 15 to 20pc of its budgets on education. Provinces in Pakistan allocated between 20 and 27pc of their budgets on education in 2015-16, according to Alif Ailaan and I-SAPS figures. Pakistan is not only meeting the Unesco recommendation, but exceeding it.
In order for Pakistan to meet the 4pc target today, the provinces would have to spend the equivalent of 30 to 40pc of current provincial budgets on education based on Alif Ailaan’s calculations in their report, “The Road to Getting to 4% of GDP”.
This will squeeze funding for other things that schoolchildren need to learn and to prosper in the future – healthcare, electricity, roads, and security.
In addition, with economic growth projected above 5.5pc in the coming years, Pakistan would have to spend more and more to maintain the 4pc ratio.
Pakistan’s economy is growing but this does not mean that the government has more money to spend.
That only comes from taxes. Without raising taxes, the political obligation to spend money on education can become an unsustainable burden on the budget.
“Spending on education in Pakistan is actually not 2pc of GDP. That’s just state spending,” points out Faisal Bari.
“We’re leaving out what parents spend on private education in Pakistan.”
Private spending is usually not counted in international comparisons because it is hard to calculate and because most countries don’t spend as much as Pakistan.
But here, as in Nigeria, where public education is also weak, private schools have mushroomed. One in every three primary school students is enrolled in private schools in Pakistan, mostly low-cost private schools that charge Rs300 to Rs2,500 per month.
Parents privately spend another $8 billion or Rs829 billion on education, according to I-SAPS. About half of this (Rs398 billion) goes to private schools and the rest (Rs431 billion) goes to the “shadow sector” meaning any unregistered and unregulated educational services that operate after 2pm, such as tuition centres.
That doubles national spending to over $15 billion or Rs1.5 trillion per year.
“They need to figure out the reforms first. Without reform, spending becomes a problem. It’s just spending for the sake of spending,” says Ali Inam, a consultant on Punjab education.
Reforms can also save money. When Sindh recently digitised teacher employment records, 3,000 teachers were removed from the payrolls.
If digitisation is completed, and accountability measures are put in place to address closed schools and ghost employees, Sindh’s savings in one year could equal what USAID has set aside for Sindh education over five years.
“Many of the issues that need to be addressed don’t require much money,” says HaroonSethi, who works on Punjab reforms under DFID.
“It’s not more money that leads to results, but money being used well,” Inam adds. “The Punjab government is spending Rs1,400 to Rs1,700 per child per month through state schools, but when it pays Rs700 per child to a private school to enroll students, it gets better results.”
Such views are also supported by research.
A 2002 World Bank report on education financing concludes, “There is no theoretically optimum level of expenditure a country should devote to education.”
Instead, it stresses that education expenditure must be adequate, sustainable and efficient.
Indeed, the problem in Pakistan is not that the country is not spending enough. In fact, it is spending too much and not getting enough in return. Debate should focus on how the education budget is being managed rather than chasing abstract international standards.
The writer is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She tweets @NadiaNavi