KHALID Hussain, a principal in a government high school, is amongst the few school principals and teachers in our public education system who want to deliver good quality education to their students. But, Khalid believes, the education sector governance model, as it was designed and as it has evolved, does not give him the tools or the freedom to deliver on quality education.
When Khalid joined the school where he is principal now, the school was in a bad place. The building needed repairs and a paint job, the grounds were a mess, there were no functional toilets and there was no provision of drinking water in the school. This is an urban government high school that we are talking about. Over the last two years, Khalid has been able to, with help from community sources, take care of all of the above issues. The school, when you enter the place now and though it still needs a lot of work, does look like an institute of learning. But infrastructure, despite cost issues, has been the easiest issue for Khalid to deal with.
His main challenges stem from governance problems. Khalid has not been able to persuade the higher authorities that the school should have its full quota of sanctioned teachers. The sanctioned posts do not fully cater to all teaching needs but Khalid cannot even get the sanctioned posts filled. He does not have teachers for science (for the lower grades), arts and biology. He is an English-language teacher himself but has ended up teaching biology and arts to higher classes in his school.
It is high time we experimented with the decentralisation of authority at the school level.
Khalid has no effective authority to manage his school. He cannot do anything to encourage or discipline a teacher who is out of line. He has no power to make an impact on the curriculum, the books that are taught in class or even the pedagogy used for teaching. He has almost no resources at his disposal, financial or human, to think about adding any ‘extras’ to his school or educational programme. He is told that he can ‘hire’ a teacher on contract but he has to pay for him/her from the meagre non-salary budget he gets for the school. The non-salary budget is so small that if he uses it to hire another teacher, he has no money left for anything else. How is the general upkeep of the school to be managed in this case?
The community in which the school is situated is not a very rich one. There is a commercial area near the school but most of the businesses in the area are also micro enterprises and most of the shopkeepers do not send their children to this public school. Their children go to the low- to medium-fee private schools in the area. Despite these challenges, Khalid has already had the community pay for getting the school whitewashed, making toilets functional, ensuring access to drinking water and seeing that the school grounds are in some order. He feels the community cannot really do more for sometime at least.
Most of the children who are enrolled in the school, though not from the poorest segments, are still from poor or lower-income households. To expect parents to donate for school maintenance or expansion is neither realistic nor fair. Even though the school is formally ‘free’, parents are already paying a lot for their children’s education for transport (where applicable), school supplies, uniforms and various examination fees. Any more demands could lead to parents withdrawing their children from school.
Khalid has had some very poor teachers who have been posted in his school. Some had little content knowledge or did not know how to teach, and some just did not want to teach. It used to be the case that if a principal did not think a teacher’s performance was not up to par, he/she could ‘surrender’ the teacher to the department and get a replacement. But this system seems to have become less functional now. Khalid said that he kept complaining for quite sometime and when the higher authorities persistently kept ignoring his requests, he just gave up. He makes do now. He feels that though the ranking of his school and his performance evaluation suffer, the real losers are the children: they are the ones who end up getting a poorer education.
We have experimented with tightening monitoring and accountability systems for teachers and head teachers/principals to ensure better performance but we have had limited success that way. The simple fact is that a good school and a good classroom require motivated teachers and principals: people who are optimally resourced and have optimal levels of autonomy that go with good accountability systems. We also have evidence that good ‘leaders’ can get schools to deliver decent quality education even in weaker governance systems.
It is high time we experimented with the decentralisation of authority in selected areas and at the school level to see how we can get principals to deliver more. The candidates for more decentralisation will have to have more powers for managing school resources, human and financial. How many teachers are needed, where should a teacher be placed, how should a teacher be motivated/evaluated and how should school budget be made and spent are issues that can be decentralised.
We will need a good accountability system in which such decentralisation is anchored but there does not seem to be an escape from experimenting with effective decentralisation if we want schools to improve. In parallel, as I wrote a few weeks ago, we will need a programme for identifying leaders and training them to enhance their capabilities further. It is high time we focus our attention on making school leaders more effective.
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, March 10th, 2017