Mahrukh Mansoor

Is our education system ‘too broken’ for reforms?

What can be done to reform an education system when fudged numbers make it almost impossible to paint a clear picture?
Published July 12, 2016

While it is no secret that Pakistan needs to better spend its education budget, the much-needed reform process is likely to be easier said than done. Fighting against a culture of doctored statistics, intense pressure from top officials, an insipid bureaucracy and ‘ghost’ teachers, donor and education officials in at least three provinces are trying to swim against the tide. But just how effective is donor money? What can be done to reform an education system when fudged numbers make it almost impossible to paint a clear picture? And, what impact will the infusion of more funds have on this much-neglected sector?

KP: slow and steady may win the race

While Imran Khan has been staging dharnas in Islamabad and elsewhere, his education team has been hard at work in KP. Experts familiar with both governments describe KP’s approach as more patient, self-driven rather than donor-driven, and focused on strengthening the education bureaucracy rather than sidelining it.

Students in many schools in Islamabad study in the open due to lack of classrooms. — File photo
Students in many schools in Islamabad study in the open due to lack of classrooms. — File photo

Their reform programme started in earnest with PTI’s election in 2013. “We had an education programme before but it had atrophied by 2013,” said a senior DFID official who asked not to be named, “Since then, they’ve gone from strength to strength.”

According to Bushra Gohar, a leader of the ANP whose party led the last government, “The ANP was keen to lead the process and set its own priorities.” She said the ANP focused on reversing the tide of the Taliban, by rebuilding destroyed schools and curriculum reform.

KP saw unique gains in enrollment during this period, which has been sustained under the new government according to the latest data. The province started off near Sindh in the enrollment of 6 to 10 year olds in 2010/11 but grew by seven percentage points and surpassed Punjab by 2014/15.

Under the current PTI government, the vision comes from Imran Khan but it’s his under-stated education minister, Atif Khan, and education secretary who are leading reforms. The political party has stepped back. This is in contrast to Punjab where the chief minister leads reforms himself.

In Punjab, the nervousness and high-level pressure for results is tangible. While Sharif has centralized power and is autocratic, KP is decentralized.

KP also owns its education reform agenda. After the elections in 2013, KP refused DFID’s help for developing the plan, but invited it to support them once the plan was finalised. “KP doesn’t want foreign help,” says the official, “They’re much more ‘we can sort out our own problems.’ And they’re doing it.”

Punjab’s education plan runs from 2013 to 2017, coinciding with elections. KP’s vision looks beyond the next election. At the moment, they are developing their second five-yearplan.

Several World Bank and DFID employees who are working on Punjab reforms expressed more confidence in KP’s approach, saying the latter could end up with a stronger education system in ten years.

However, a DFID document calls the programme high risk but potentially high return. There are several potential risks.

“The education minister is trying to stop nepotism and corruption to the extent that he can but it’s not much,” says Faisal Bari, “Underneath him there is a huge bureaucracy that has been doing things a certain way for decades.” He adds that while Punjab and KP have had some success in cleaning up teacher recruitment, by making it merit- and test-based, stopping nepotism and corruption in the promotion, posting, and transfer of teacher’s will be harder.

KP is more decentralised than Punjab, so outcomes are harder to control. KP also faces challenges in the form of earthquakes, floods, militancy, and IDP crises. Many of KP’s schools are in hard-to-reach mountainous areas, which makes it difficult to manage teachers and hold them accountable on a daily basis.

In addition, there is concern about the PTI’s vision for education. According to Gohar, “PTI and its coalition partner JI are pro-Taliban and have spent the last three years in government reversing education reforms of the previous government.”

She says KP’s recent budget allocation of 300 million rupees to Darul Uloom Haqqania, the alma mater of Mullah Omar and other senior Afghan Taliban leaders, should have been used to improve infrastructure in government schools.

Examine: Educating Pakistan: a Herculean task or official apathy?

Sindh battles teachers

Last year, when Sindh asked its teachers to visit biometric verification centers to confirm their employment and submit employment files for digitization, some showed up from as far as Dubai. Others responded with violence. In Larkana, a PPP stronghold, teachers destroyed all the computers and servers in the center. The system had to be reconstituted and re-started in Karachi.

Sindh’s paper- and file-based system of maintaining employment records has been easy to manipulate. The provincial payroll has included thousands of people who were not employed by the ministry because they used photocopied employment letters, got illegal promotions by bribing clerics, or were ghosts living far away and with other full-time jobs. Relatives could cover for the missing employee in school or just to pick up paychecks.

Today, the digitization process is complete but it is only the first step in getting to an education system where teachers are found in schools.

Education Secretary Fazlullah Pechuho has said that 40 per cent of schools in his province are closed and 40 percent of teachers are ghosts. There are 144,000 teachers in Sindh. Pechuho’s estimate would put ghost teachers at 60,000.

A district official doing an informal survey one morning in Jacobabad district in Northern Sindh reported 70 percent of schools to be closed. But there is no way to know the actual status of a school on any given day without a monitoring system such as the one that exists in Punjab and KP.

“It’s the bad teachers versus the government,” says Nadeem Hussain who is part of Sindh’s Reform Support Unit.

But Sindh cannot even fire missing teachers. They can only stop salaries.

Salaries for 3,000 teachers who did not show up for verification were stopped. At salaries that range from 15,000 to 100,000 rupees per month according to AlifAilaan, this is significant saving for Sindh.

But one staffer estimates that there are 30,000 to 40,000 ghost teachers in Sindh. He surmises that many used connections or bribes to keep their employment.

Those working on reforms hope that the numbers will increase as the school monitoring system is deployed. Sindh recently hired 225 monitors and equipped them with a motorcycle, and a biometric verification machine. These monitors will visit schools in 15 districts every month to check if they are open, if teachers are present, and how many students are in school. Another 170 monitors will be hired for Sindh’s remaining 14 districts.

“The biometric attendance data will be reconciled with the accountant general’s records since he issues paychecks. Salaries for absent teachers will not be released. If the teacher comes and works, only then are we liable to pay him,” promises Faisal Ahmed Uqaili, Chief Programme Manager of the Reform Support Unit.

But it may, quite literally, be a battle. In November 2015, a protest over teachers’ salaries in Karachi ended with water-cannons, teargas, and a police baton-charge. But teachers at the protest could not even spell “primary” when quizzed.

The ‘unknown’ state of education

Is the political will there?

Pechuho is described by staff as “old but techie.” They say he is trying to create an education system that he can control from his iPad. But it’s not clear that he has the political software to make the new systems work.

Pechuho is the brother-in-law of PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari. That makes him powerful and has probably kept him in office for three years.

But according to one analyst, “The biggest hindrance to reform is the PPP itself. Teachers in Sindh are not really teachers, they are political workers. For an MPA, it’s important that his workers get paid. If they get fired, the MPA’s political future might be at stake.” Attempts to fire teachers are often reversed by the chief minister who is under pressure from MPAs.

Teachers also enjoy protection from the courts. According to UmbreenArif, the World Bank officerl in charge of Sindh and Balochistan: “Teachers are rarely dismissed from service. There is a Supreme Court ruling that salaries should not be stopped till disciplinary proceedings are complete because the family of the employee should not suffer. District education officials have told me that they rarely stop the salary of an absentee teacher because of the ruling.”

Bureaucratic leadership, in the form of a strong education secretary, is critical. But correcting Sindh’s historic misuse of public resources also requires political leadership from the top.

See: More lethal than RAW

Punjab: regime of fear

Punjab has been working on education reforms the longest of any province, but their progress over the past decade demonstrates that a tougher top-down management of the education bureaucracy does not necessarily translate into meaningful results for students in classrooms.

According to a recent appraisal document by the World Bank, which has been financing reforms since 2003: “Despite over a decade of focused support to large scale education programs and what some have termed ‘cutting edge’ reforms, education outcomes, including enrollment rates and learning outcomes, in … Punjab are only marginally better than those in the rest of the country. Gains made over the last decade have stagnated, despite increased sector financing by the [government of] Punjab and support to the sector by the World Bank and other Development Partners (DPs).”

Enrollment has stagnated at 70 per cent in Punjab with federal government statistics indicating zero growth in the net enrollment of 6 to 10 year olds between 2010/11 and 2014/15. (DFID data collected by Nielsen shows an increase of six percent in enrollment since 2011.) Punjab’s critical challenge now is to improve the quality of learning, which will hopefully encourage parents to put their kids in school. But this is where gaps in the system are showing up.

According to several senior donor officials, Shahbaz Sharif’s heavy-handed push to achieve numeric targets is backfiring. They called the targets unrealistic and lacking a cohesive, long-term vision.

“Sharif has a ‘heads will roll’ approach. The idea is that if you put people under enough pressure, they will deliver,” said a senior official and educationist working onthePunjab reforms,who asked not to be identified. “A district education official under that much pressure is bound to invent some numbers.” District officials in charge of the lowest and highest performers have to answer to Sharif directly.

“Ridiculous pressure is put on district officials to show progress every month,” says Faisal Bari, an economist who has done research work on education, “But things don’t change every month.” Yet, some of Punjab’s numbers do change every month. The number of third graders who could complete basic functions in Urdu, English, and math increased by an average of four per cent between October and November 2015, according to monthly tests that government monitors administer to students on iPads.

Punjab’s data also shows that two of the three lowest performing districts in Punjab in April and May 2015 – Rajanpur and Rawalpindi – became the highest performers in math within four months. It is likely that such rapid increases reflect errors in data collection or weak methods such repeating questions so that the children become familiar with the answers.

“While Punjab is ahead of Sindh and KP in terms of education reforms, there are still concerns on the validity of data used for policy analysis. There is a high incentive to fake progress due to quarterly review led directly by the chief minister,” says Ali Inam, a consultant on Punjab’s reforms.

“KP’s numbers are more realistic, so in a few years they may get ahead because they actually figured out how to solve problems.”

Sharif’s management style is inspired by a philosophy that has been touted as a solution for Pakistan’s social sector problems: “deliverology,” a term coined by Sir Michael Barber, former DFID Special Representative for Education to Pakistan. Sharif’s approach consists of aggressive data collection, reward, and punishment based on performance.

“Shahbaz Sharif is operating almost solely on a deliverology model, which is ‘I will humiliate, yell, beat, ridicule, or fire you if you don’t perform’,” says another education specialist working on the reforms. “The system reacts like headless chickens, doing whatever it takes to placate him. But he doesn’t understand the nuances, and no one can stand up to him.” One international donor official called the Punjab reform programme a “regime of fear.”

Independent experts such as Faisal Bari and Mosharraf Zaidi described the education bureaucracy, even the education secretary, as disempowered, especially next to the smooth McKinsey and Adam Smith International teams that are paid by donors to work with provincial leaders.

But the specialist also points out that Sharif isn’t putting the right people in place to begin with: “If Shahbaz Sharif actually really cared about making a difference he would appoint the same caliber of people in charge of education and health as he puts in charge of finance and planning & development.”

A ghost of a problem?

“There is not a single ghost school in Punjab. That is out of question. Ghost teachers and ghost schools are not an issue in Punjab,” says a senior official in charge of monitoring.

Former president and General Pervez Musharraf once said that “there are between 30 and 40,000 ghost schools, amounting to 20 percent of all schools.”

According to Khalid Khattak, an investigative reporter on education, “Punjab doesn’t have a ghost teacher problem like it used to. It’s because of the monitoring system put in place. They are also taking disciplinary action against teachers who do not show up.”

“Punjab has fired many teachers,” says Khattak, “We keep hearing complaints from teachers’ associations.”

KP has instituted the same system. According to Education Minister Atif Khan, “The problem of teachers collecting salaries but actually doing business in Dubai or other jobs has – I won’t say 100% but maybe 99% - been solved.” Sindh and Balochistan have also removed thousands of ghost teachers from the payrolls.

Ghost teachers are relatively easy to get rid of, as long as they are really ‘ghosts.’ A bigger problem is teachers who are simply absent a lot, and therefore still around to put up a fight if their jobs are threatened. They are also represented by teachers’ unions.

Absentee rates plummet when monitoring is introduced. Punjab has brought down its absenteeism rate from 20 per cent in 2010 to six per cent today. KP’s is down from 30 per cent in March 2015 when monitoring started to 13 per cent today.

Donor spending: a drop in the bucket

Donor funding for education is highly visible in Pakistan. From television campaigns to public debates, donors and their dollars are a tangible force in shaping the public narrative on how the state education system can and should be salvaged.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Minister for CADD Tariq Fazal Chaudhry and Maryam Nawaz watch students perform a tableau during a visit to a model school in Islamabad. — File photo
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Minister for CADD Tariq Fazal Chaudhry and Maryam Nawaz watch students perform a tableau during a visit to a model school in Islamabad. — File photo

Punjab’s education reform programme is the largest UK aid program in the world today. Pakistan is the largest recipient of UK aid today and, until a few years ago, second largest recipient of US aid.

However, the absolute numbers also reveal that bilateral donor spending on education in Pakistan is tiny – almost negligible – compared to the country’s own spending on education.

“We have to constantly remind Congress that the value of our investment is actually pretty small compared to what the Pakistan government is spending,” says a senior U.S. official who has worked on the aid programme for many years.

For instance, the UK budgeted around $150 million for fiscal year 2016 for Pakistan. That is worth exactly two per cent of Pakistan’s $7.5 billion education budget. United States’ spending on education last year was $65 million according to, which is less than one per cent of Pakistan’s education budget.

At its height, the US spending averaged the equivalent of about two per cent of Pakistan’s education budget per year.

The total $7.5 billion value of Kerry-Lugar-Berman - which will take ten years to come through - equals what Pakistan has budgeted on education alone in 2016.

In other words, the power to fix Pakistan’s social sectors, especially education, lies with the state of Pakistan. Donor spending is just too low. At best, it can have marginal value when it gives governments the spare budgets they need to support reforms.

But apart from the numbers, the different approaches of the donor agencies also shape whether or not their money is effective.

Read: Pakistan’s education spending lowest in South Asia

The Brits won’t touch Sindh govt

The bulk of the UK’s education funding goes directly to the provincial governments in Punjab and KP. The Department for International Development (DFID) releases funds directly into provincial budgets as the provinces achieve “milestones” related to their own multi-year plans for education reform, such as reducing the rate of teacher absenteeism. They do not track exactly how the government ends up spending the money.

A small part of DFID support is used to hire experts and young people, mostly Pakistanis, who support the governments to implement reforms. This staff is hired by international companies such as McKinsey and Adam Smith International.

Some are critical of the role of private companies in education reforms, because it sidelines the role of the education ministries.

“Between Michael Barber, who sits with Shahbaz Sharif, and all the PhDs at the World Bank, the [education] department feels it can no longer contribute to the discussion,” says a consultant for a donor in Punjab, “The education department has become an implementer of the agenda defined by the donors.”

DFID invests money in education where they believe it will be used well. For that reason, they do not work with the government in Sindh.

According to their 2012 assessment, “Given political uncertainties about the depth of the government’s commitment to reform and the lack of a comprehensive plan for the education sector, we do not believe it is feasible to fund the government directly…. Nor are we confident that we can achieve sufficiently rapid impact for Sindh’s out-of-school children through the provision of additional funding.”

According to their assessment, support from the World Bank and multiple donors for reform efforts in Sindh only increased enrollment from 50 per cent to 53 per cent between 2006/7 and 2010/11.

Instead, DFID has supported the Pakistan Business Council in administering vouchers for children in Sindh to go to low-cost private schools.

World Bank loans out money for reform

World Bank funding for education in Pakistan is the largest but it’s mostly in the form of loans that have to be paid back.

The World Bank supports the governments of Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan at their request. Punjab and Sindh get loans of about $100 million per year.

Sindh also receives a small grant of about $20 million a year. Balochistan receives grants worth around $8 million a year. This grant money will not be paid back. The loans average $100 million or slightly less for Punjab and Sindh per year.

KP has, so far, not accepted World Bank loans but that may change.

In Punjab, the World Bank works in tandem with DFID to support the government’s reform agenda. The two donors are committed to providing long-term support. The World Bank programme started in 2003 and will go on till 2021. DFID support started in 2010 and ends in 2019.

World Bank staff consistently point out how small their funds are next to the province’s own budgets.

Punjab threw the Americans out

USAID has not been able to work with the Punjab government since 2011, when Shahbaz Sharif cancelled all programmes in the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The American agency had to re-route incubators, headed to the dilapidated Lady Willingdon hospital in Lahore, to Sindh. Punjab also cancelled USAID’s plans to renovate the hospital.

USAID also re-directed its education programming to Sindh, a province that has 46,000 schools. Their current programme centers on the construction of 120 schools. They are inviting the private sector to manage them.

Unlike DFID, USAID tracks its money closely because of congressional concerns about the risk of corruption or diversion of funds. They cannot participate in the reform programmes because such programmes release money to the governments without tracking how it is ultimately spent. Instead, they reimburse the government as it produces “outputs,” such as schools constructed, rather than performance targets or “outcomes” such as increasing enrollment rates.

When asked why USAID does not work with them in education, KP’s Education Minister conjectured that, “The donors may have agreed that DFID will work in KP and USAID will work in Sindh. USAID has become too negative here. If you say DFID here, ninety-nine percent of people won’t know what that is. But if you say USAID in KP, people will say, ‘Who knows what kind of hamla [attack] they want to do on us.’”

DFID prefers not to brand or advertise its work at all.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2016

The writer is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She tweets @NadiaNavi