Activist couple shares success stories of turning around government schools

November 23, 2018

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Shehzad Roy and Salma Alam speak at the programme on Thursday.—White Star
Shehzad Roy and Salma Alam speak at the programme on Thursday.—White Star

KARACHI: The importance of public schools in ensuring quality education for all children and the role of the private sector in strengthening the public education system was in focus at the 49th event of the Aga Khan University’s Sixth Sense Forum (6sf) with Shehzad Roy and his wife Salma Alam as the speakers on Thursday.

“Reform is always an unfinished business,” said Roy, singer and founder of the Zindagi Trust, as he shared his experience with public sector education reforms.

He said that although his work with turning around government schools had become more known he actually started with another programme called ‘I am paid to learn’ which looked at engaging working children so that their parents who needed them to work to supplement the family income would encourage them to study also as they were getting paid that way too.

But after starting that programme in 2003, Roy also needed to build schools for it. That was when he thought it criminal to build new buildings with so many government school buildings already there. Since he wanted to bring the already present huge infrastructure into use, he decided to reform government schools first. For this he started a fundraising campaign by releasing a song with Abida Parveen that helped him raise the initial seed money of Rs3 million to kick off the programme.

“With a three-pronged strategy of working at the infrastructure/administrative, academic side and policy, we started looking for schools,” Roy said. Coming to the FMB Fatima Jinnah Government Girls School, he realised that it had more problems than he had bargained for. “The campus like all other government schools was also being used by corrupt people for holding private wedding ceremonies, etc, which also invited stray dogs and had other issues too. For instance there happened to be eight schools functioning on the same campus. It was an administrative mess,” he said.

Since no one in the school education department could bear to hear about closing down of schools in such campuses, Roy coined the phrase of “consolidating schools”, which was more acceptable to them. “And after three years of constant struggle over this matter, the Zindagi Trust was successful in ending it along with major corruption by seeing a government notification about its end in 2012,” he added.

That done, they went about trying to introduce supplementary books in SMB Fatima Jinnah which again became an issue as it was seen as interfering with the Matric curriculum, which only allowed books from the Sindh Textbook Board. But the trust was successful once again in getting a notification issued from the government which allowed supplementary reading up to class eight.

Resistance from teachers

“By then we thought that we had perfected the art of reforming government schools. But we were wrong,” he added. Roy explained that they had become a bit overconfident when they also asked to take over the management of the Khatoon-i-Pakistan Government School for Girls only to face a huge agitation from the teachers there. They even prompted the then leader of the MQM to announce his support for the teachers, who were resisting to come to school on time, etc. “Passing by the school during a protest by the teachers there I spotted one banner that read: ‘Shehzad Roy gaye ga, humay kia parhaye ga? [How will singer Shehzad Roy teach us?]’. We were confused and unnerved. Our reform work also stopped for a while,” he shared.

He continued then by telling how they decided to tackle this school’s problems by getting law enforcement agencies and the government to clean up the schools of corrupt and lazy teachers before trying to take over its management. “And that is how, finally, we were able to take over (in 2015) and turn over the Khatoon-i-Pakistan School. Our goal basically is to take over a few schools and turn them around by creating an enabling environment there,” he said.

Roy also spoke about the controversial life skills programme created by Ahang Organisation that he wanted to introduce in schools to make children aware of child abuse and things like good touch and bad touch.

“With no other school willing to introduce it we went ahead with it at SMB Fatima Jinnah and the Khatoon-i-Pakistan School. But after the Zainab case we again asked the government to reconsider its earlier stance. And we have succeeded.

Not just in Sindh, but it has also been accepted in Balochistan and is to be introduced there in the next academic year,” he said.

Lack of critical thinking

Roy’s better half Salma Alam, who along with being the founder of Durbeen, is also an adviser to school education and literacy department, government of Sindh, then took the stage to talk about teachers’ education and training. “Our teachers are not developing critical thinking and they are not preparing our children for the 21st century,” she said.

“There is a science to teaching,” she said, adding that despite her education background in science and engineering from Harvard, she had to unlearn things and even proceed to Singapore for her own teacher training before coming back to set up her organisation, Durbeen, which aspires for education excellence through equity.

“Going for school reforms we need teachers that are change agents,” she concluded.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2018