The writer has worked with national and international organisations in Sindh.
The writer has worked with national and international organisations in Sindh.

FOR a decade, we have been boasting about grand education-sector reforms in Sindh. But things are not improving. Half of the schools in the province are still without basic facilities such as drinking water, electricity, toilets and furniture, etc — even though in every year’s budget documents, there is always a special mention about providing such essentials. Institutional inefficiencies and vested interests continue to plague the education sector.

The second Sindh Education Sector Reform Project (SERP-II), a five-year plan with a total budget of $400 million, is about to complete its full cycle by the end of the current month. To everyone’s dismay, achievements under SERP-II are pretty much the same as they were at the end of SERP-I. We have not only squandered money, a World Bank loan, but have also lost time.

Broadly, the project sets two main targets: increase school participation at the primary, middle and secondary levels, and improve students’ learning outcomes. Specific targets included an increase in net enrolment at the primary level (six-10 years) from 61.6 per cent to 67pc, at the middle level (11-13 years) from 35.7pc to 40pc, and at matriculation (14-15 years) from 23.1pc to 26pc.

We’ve not only squandered a loan, but have also lost time.

These baselines were developed according to the Pakistan Living Standards Measurement Survey 2010-11. According to the latest PSLM data for the year 2014-15, released in 2016, there is no significant improvement in the above indicators. The government of Sindh may question the reliability of the data but it still would not be able to absolve itself of its due share of blame because the same source of data was used to design the baselines.

Another crucial indicator is the quality of education, where the situation does not look promising either. In 2012, the provincial education department started assessing the performance of students of Class 5 and 8 in three subjects: languages (English, Urdu, Sindhi), maths and science. These assessments were done though a third party, the Institute of Business Administration, Sukkur. Since then, the Standardised Achievement Test (SAT) is carried out across the province on an annual basis. To date, four assessments have been carried out.

Again, the results are very disturbing. Overall, the provincial average score in languages for Class 5 was 32pc and for Class 8 it was 37pc, while the average score for maths and science was around 24pc for both classes. The performance of the education department has been pathetic and there is no sign of improvement. Can this department, which received 18-20pc of a share in the provincial budget, even justify its existence?

Yet it would be unfair to not mention some positive developments, such as the biometric verification of all employees of the education department and the establishment of a directorate for monitoring and evaluation, amongst a few other things.

Unfortunately, these small gains are being squandered. Some employees who were in the custody of the National Accountability Bureau on corruption charges, and submitted to ‘voluntary return’, have not only been reinstated but even promoted.

Furthermore, absent and irregular employees (identified as a result of the biometric exercise), whose salaries had been frozen, are now being facilitated in getting their salaries before Eid. The political leadership is eyeing the upcoming general elections, so its top priority is to consolidate its vote bank. And officers are so wedded to their posts that they are happy to find any ways and means to oblige the leadership.

Sindh cannot progress without an educated and skilled labour force. Who will fix it, and how? There is a no simple answer. First, understanding is required as to where the fault lies. Only sincere and honest efforts can steer us out of the education crisis. While working for international aid agencies, NGOs and the government of Sindh, I have observed a strong network of vested-interest parties. The situation has plummeted with the involvement of huge funds and poor accountability mechanisms. Whenever someone dares ask critical questions, all opposing forces come together to silence it. Therefore, to begin with, it is essential that the nexus be understood and exposed.

Currently, plans are being made to get approval for SERP-III. Would this be wise after the failure of SERP-I and II? Why do we even need a loan when we fail to spend our own funds? Given the poor quality of service delivery by the education department, it would be prudent to put our own house in order first.

Is anyone listening? I doubt it. No one appears concerned about the education of Sindh’s poor; all the ‘haves’ have withdrawn their stakes from the public education system.

The writer has worked with national and international organisations in Sindh.

asgharsoomro@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2017

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