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Nurturing school leadership

January 27, 2017


NUSRAT Bibi taught in government primary schools for about 35 years before she retired. She was a head teacher for about a decade and a half out of the 35 years. When I met her she was close to retirement. She had been heading/teaching in the same school for about 15 years by then. This school was in a small village. All the teachers in her school had been Nusrat Bibi’s students and she had taught generations of girls in that village.

Village elders wanted to keep Nusrat Bibi as the head teacher for as long as it was possible. A number of students said that they wanted to grow up to be like Nusrat Bibi — surely a high compliment for a teacher. A number of younger teachers said that Nusrat Bibi had been their motivation to become teachers.

What did Nusrat Bibi do to achieve such an iconic status in the eyes of the villagers? Nusrat Bibi’s own home was a few hours away from the village where she was posted. She would stay in the school from Monday to Friday and went home only for the weekends. Since she was in the school in the evenings as well, she provided extra coaching to all those girls willing to learn. She even taught post-primary-level girls and prepared them for their matriculation examination. All of this extra coaching was done gratis: her main motivation for doing all this was “I am a teacher”.

The role of a leader in our public education system cannot be emphasised enough.

Given her dedication she was also able to get a lot of financial and material support from the village. Girls came in early and helped Nusrat Bibi and other teachers to clean the school. A village landowner had provided finances to improve the school building and get functional toilets. Villagers contributed labour and material to whitewash the school periodically. Even school uniforms, stationery and notebooks for students who could not afford these were provided by the school through funds raised by the community.

Though the primary school was small and still did not have a room for each class, it was a pleasure to visit the school and see the enthusiasm with which children were learning and were being taught.

Given the general state of public education in Pakistan, Nusrat Bibi’s school must be an exception. And it is. Though not a unique case, schools like Nusrat Bibi’s form a small percentage of public schools in Pakistan. I have been visiting public schools as a researcher for a decade and a half at least. Most government schools disappoint. Within the first 10 to 15 minutes of entering a school you can get a fairly good idea of whether a school is working well or not. A school that is working well will have classes in session, students would be interested in what they are learning, teachers would be involved in teaching, there would be general order in the school, and the school premises, by and large, will give the impression that it is being looked after and cared for. Classes, bathrooms and even the students will have a ‘cared-for’ look.

Almost all government schools that I have felt were working well had a person who acted as a leader in the school. In most places it was the head teacher who was the driving force behind a functioning school. In a minority of cases it was one of the teachers and/or a community member who provided the impetus for efficacy. But, without fail, there had to be at least one individual who worried about the school and went beyond the call of duty to ensure that it was functioning well and was being properly looked after.

Where institutional structures and organisations are stronger, where standard operating procedures are well specified, and where adequate human and material resources are available and expectations clearly identified and well understood, the role of a leader might be less important. But in weaker areas, like our public education system, the role of a leader cannot be emphasised enough.

In larger bureaucracies, it is not easy to identify potential or actual leaders, train and nurture them and then facilitate them to acquire positions where their leadership skills can be put to good use. Most bureaucracies encourage risk-averse behaviour, reward mediocrity and status quo and reward on the basis of seniority rather than performance.

Our public-sector educational bureaucracies are no different. Teachers are predominantly promoted on the basis of seniority. Performance incentives are sometimes present but they are, usually, not strongly linked to promotions and positions of leadership. Until a few years ago, it was the senior-most teacher in a school who would be made the head teacher. Now, it seems that Punjab has changed the policy and it is the most educated teacher in a school who is given the responsibility of being the head teacher. But even now, it is not about leadership qualities.

There is no real effort on the part of the respective departments of staff development to identify potential leaders; there are no effective trainings on leadership development/management and there is no effective recognition for being a leader as well.

Given the fact that it is very unlikely we will be able to strengthen institutional structures and provide adequate resources to our schools in the foreseeable future, it is imperative for us to focus on ‘leaders’ who can organise school management effectively under trying conditions, marshal resources from the community and harness the energy of the pupils to ensure effective teaching. But this requires a major bureaucratic shakeup in the way we identify, train and nurture potential and actual leaders: a task that might just be beyond the ability and/or incentives of our educational bureaucracies.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2017