IT is a sad reality that many of the measures aimed at bringing improvements in education in Sindh appear to be ill-conceived, inadequate or irrelevant. With the exception of some high-ups in the education department, hardly anyone seems to be taking ownership of the reform initiatives. No wonder there is only halfhearted implementation of the reforms which don’t seem to be going anywhere. Such a situation can only widen the trust deficit between departments, as well as between head offices and district education officers. How can education in the province prosper, if there is hardly anyone who is worried about the current state of affairs?
Take the issue of school consolidation — one of the reforms, which has been unable to achieve the targets although it was hailed as a panacea for all challenges related to education governance and management. The school consolidation policy was approved in 2012. In fact, the process had started even earlier but its implementation has been at a snail’s pace and most of the progress is limited to paperwork.
Under the policy, 4,039 schools were converted into 1,350 campus schools across the province by merging adjoining, embedded or nearby schools. Along with the provision of special funds, arrangements were proposed for full-throttled implementation due to World Bank pressure.
In the last fiscal year 2016-17, the government of Sindh had earmarked Rs1.8 billion, as part of a one-time grant discussed below, to carry out essential repair and renovation work in the newly formed campus schools. Furthermore, a provision was created for hiring 1,350 education leaders to be appointed as principal in those schools. That these initiatives are being implemented in a haphazard fashion is obvious from the following two examples; as per government’s rules all appointments in Grade 17 must be made through competitive examinations of the Sindh Public Service Commission but this rule has apparently been flouted to recruit 1,039 headmasters in grade 17 via a third party. The chief secretary Sindh has taken notice and has sought an explanation.
Education in Sindh is still waiting for an overhaul.
Another serious issue is that of inefficiency, which can be gauged from the fact that the provincial government allocated a one-time grant for school infrastructure development some five years ago. But the actual utilisation of the money so far has been less than seven per cent, which has had a detrimental impact on the pace of implementation. In fact, every year the grant amount is enhanced without reason. It clearly shows that there are no proper checks and balances in education, in terms of budget-making, forecasting and utilisation. How can they allow an annual increase in the budget which hasn’t been spent for the last several years?
Generally, most of the reforms are supply-driven, which often don’t fit in with local realities. In the case of school consolidation, too, it does not appear to have been a well-thought-out initiative as the situation was not assessed properly. For instance, there are gaps between planning and implementation, critical where human and financial resources are concerned. On top of it, stakeholders who are affected by the reform effort do not appear to have been consulted.
All this has significantly contributed to the existing trust deficit mentioned earlier, which has resulted in serious delays. So far, out of 1,350 campus schools, only one school in Karachi (Church Mission School, Government Higher Secondary School) has significantly improved. Even so, the credit for this must go to the headmaster of the school, who successfully overcame various hurdles to improve matters.
But in a bizarre move, a few months ago, an erroneous impression was created by the authorities that the rest of the schools too had been turned around in the same manner when a high-level delegation from the World Bank visited.
It is high time we changed the current approach to reforming schools in the province, where the education indicators are abysmal. More often than not, it has been seen that the bureaucrats at the helm of educational affairs do not have a proper understanding of this crucial area; sadly, many among them are seen to rely on the advice of project donors, who may offer different temptations such as hefty amounts of money in the name of ‘project allowance’, foreign trips, etc. Incidentally, such additional allowances to government officers from foreign-funded projects affect their loyalty to the public interest and are in conflict with their job obligations.
So, without creating a sense of ownership of reforms across the board, we will continue to witness a poor performance. And nothing is likely to improve unless education department officials and donors are held accountable. Lastly, it is intriguing that despite our continuously pathetic performance, banks are keen to provide more loans and donors more grants to the province.
The writer has worked with national and international organisations in Sindh.
Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2017