'Our children deserve more': Shehzad Roy recalls struggles with education reform in Pakistan

The musician-turned-social worker talks about why and how he chose to challenge Pakistan's education system.
Published December 11, 2018

How it all began

Shehzad Roy.
Shehzad Roy.

Most people know Shehzad Roy only as a musician.

He has, however, been involved for many years in some remarkable attempts to reform public-sector institutions as well.

He recounts here his involvement with government schools and the lessons he learnt along the way.

Imran Akhoond has been playing guitar with me for years and now performs for all the top musical shows on television.

He belongs to a Gujrati family and, as a kid, he spoke and interacted in his mother tongue.

At school, his teacher asked him to speak in Urdu and, as expected, it was a struggle for him.

As he grew up, Imran applied for jobs but the applications had to be written in English, which was another struggle. His late father would ask him to pray to God in Arabic to ensure that he secured the job.

No doubt, it’s good to learn different languages but not so good when your fate depends on them.

It is said that only those with brilliant minds and considered as the cream of society pass the Public Service Commission’s Central Superior Service (CSS) exams and go on to become bureaucrats.

CSS examination candidates have to sit for a compulsory written essay in English.

If you do not pass this English essay exam, you fail the entire CSS examination. Among the general population, however, we could possibly have potential geniuses who may fail the CSS exams due to poor writing skills in English.

And this is true for nearly all prime jobs in Pakistan. So the cream that we get is processed and quite bad for health!

In any case, I am glad that Imran could not get the jobs he vied for, and instead became one of the top guitarists of Pakistan. But not everyone is as lucky as Imran.

I have lately been thinking about Imran because of my own journey in education reform.

It is a journey I stumbled into and through which I have learnt more from my mistakes and missteps than anything else.

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My journey in education reforms

In my career as a musician and working to introduce reforms in the civic sector, I have noticed that, as a nation, we shy away from resolving big issues which may have very simple solutions that stare us in the face, preferring instead to come up with “innovative solutions”.

The administration block of the SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School after renovation.
The administration block of the SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School after renovation.

Hence the dialogue for change turns into fancy innovation-speak.

These innovative ideas quickly become the talk of the town and are appreciated more than the simple solutions that are being practised the world over.

But often they are like catchy Bollywood songs, which gain popularity very rapidly but, at the same time, fade away from the public imagination just as quickly.

I have seen this in my involvement with attempts to reform law enforcement as well.

I am a Karachi boy. True to the character of the city, when a few years back a street criminal stopped me, I immediately surrendered my mobile phone.

Subsequent to this I became involved with a civil society effort, the Citizens Trust Against Crime (CTAC) to strengthen law enforcement.

But what I soon realised was that most of civil society feels that efforts to reform the police will only lead to a dead end.

This is because most people feel reluctant to roll up their sleeves and get involved in dirt and filth, especially when they feel that the government is indifferent.

So “innovative solutions” and parallel organisations such as the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) are set up.

The CPLC is a great organisation and helped bring some peace to the city for some time.

Recently, the paramilitary Rangers have been brought in to work along with the police to bring peace in the city again and, today, Karachi is more peaceful than it has been for a long time thanks to their efforts.

But sadly, this is all firefighting. Very little or no dialogue is established or work done to reform or strengthen the police stations themselves.

How does this relate to my journey in education?

The administration block of the SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School before renovation.
The administration block of the SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School before renovation.

Well, like in the case of the ‘solution’ to law enforcement, we don’t have any lasting solutions in education. We want quick fixes.

There is no attempt to initiate a dialogue to reform state-run schools; we instead “plan” innovative solutions.

Ever since independence, dialogue and efforts hover around ‘innovative’ solutions and no real lasting strategies and solutions are ever discussed or implemented.

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Learning from 'I am paid to learn'

(Left to right): Before and after photos of the new school library at SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School | Photos courtesy the writer
(Left to right): Before and after photos of the new school library at SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School | Photos courtesy the writer

When I started my charitable organisation Zindagi Trust (ZT) in 2003, being part of this same 'creative' civil society with the 'innovative' mindset, I also came up with an innovative idea to reform the education sector, in particular the issue of out-of-school children.

Under the “I Am Paid To Learn” (IMPTL) non-formal education programme, we started paying the working/street children to come to small units/schools that we established in three cities.

This was set up with the presumption that it would be a strong incentive for working kids to come to school when they are compensated for the earnings they lose at their workplaces by attending schools.

This payment was made to the children only when they attended classes and parents could thereby keep a check on their children’s attendance that day.

By 2005, there were 3,000 working children enrolled in this programme.

This was such a successful model that even the president at the time praised it and said that this could be a solution to provide education to all underprivileged working children.

And I patted myself on the back and said, "Ab samajh aya [Now I know] how reforms work." 

As it happened, very soon after this self-congratulatory thought, during a visit to one of our schools, I saw one of the children at the school rocking back and forth during his lessons.

This rhythmic movement is associated with rote learning and regurgitating from textbooks in tests or exams.

This got me thinking and I was a worried man that day. 

Consider this: three parallel systems of education operate simultaneously in Pakistan: the Matriculation/Federal system, the British ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels system (which caters mainly to an elite), and the madressah system.

All government schools, almost all non-governmental organisation (NGO) schools and a majority of private schools follow the matric board system.

This means that they have to follow the government provincial textbook board and conduct examinations according to the given curriculum.

As we do not have very many thought-provoking books in our local languages, even kids who study in NGO-run or private schools — that often have better administration and more conducive learning environs — fail to develop critical thinking.

Eventually they become rote learners just like the madressah students. Seeing that boy in the IMPTL school was an eye-opener for me.

A foreign ambassador visiting the IMPTL school, during this time, lauded the programme and remarked to me, "We are really worried about children who are not going to school."

I answered, "I am, too — but now I’m more worried about the children who are going to school."

And almost simultaneously it dawned on me that until and unless we fix the government schools, the marginalised sections of our society will never receive quality education.

Challenging our own successful IMPTL programme was as difficult as telling a zealot from a political or religious group that their cause is not worth dying for. 

Though I tried, I could not initiate a dialogue with like-minded people.

Even some of our ZT board members felt that fixing government schools was a lost cause and were not in a mood to abandon IMPTL.

I, on the other hand, was not in the mood to suggest any further 'innovative' solution, and felt that the real solution was to roll up our sleeves and fix the state school system.

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Fixing a government school

To start this dialogue, Zindagi Trust took over the transfer of management of a government school for girls called SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School (FJGS), located in Karachi’s Garden West area.

But my board informed me that I would have to raise funds separately for this initiative and the board would only lend support if and when they saw some tangible results of the reform. I thought this was fair.

From L: Abida Parveen and Shehzad Roy.
From L: Abida Parveen and Shehzad Roy.

I then requested Abida Parveen to sing a song with me to raise some initial funds for the school. The basic theme of the song was “No differences can be the only way to make a difference.”

In the process of working on FJGS I learnt that there could be two approaches to turn around a government school.

The first was to introduce just cosmetic quick-fixes, like providing some books and training some teachers, luring them with samosas and chai on the menu.

The second was a clean-up operation with zero tolerance for everything that didn’t fit into what a good school should be.

I soon realised that turning around one government school was like turning around all of Pakistan on a small scale; it involved dealing with the land mafia who often use religion and patriotism to encroach on land, and to deal with corrupt, irregular and even ghost staff.

We adopted the second approach with a three-pronged strategy involving infrastructure refurbishment and administrative steps in the first part, academic changes in the second and policy changes in the third.

The objective was not only to reform one government school but to start a dialogue and convert this school into a catalyst which could impact the education system in Pakistan.

This battle also changed my music trajectory: from ‘Saali tu maani nahin’ to ‘Laga reh’:

Mujhay fikar ye nahi ke ye mulk kaisay chalay ga/ Mujhay fikar hai ke kahien aisay hi na chalta rahay [I’m not worried how this country will be run/ I’m worried that it might keep running like it is].”

I remember the day I went to the principal of SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School with the notification of the management transfer in my hand. Her name was Khalida.

All excited, I gave a breathless presentation, informing her of our plans to change policies by turning around a few government schools. She watched me expressionless.

I wondered if she was impressed, scared or happy. Then suddenly she asked if I could help her "get rid of the dogs."

I was thoroughly confused. I thought she was talking in metaphors, referring to some bad people who may be bothering her. But she then explained what she meant.

Like all government schools, Khalida said, this school too had huge playgrounds which were rented for weddings and other events by the land mafia and thugs of the area who pocketed the money earned.

The school did not have any janitorial staff and, therefore, the leftover food from the dinners attracted stray dogs that kept loitering in the school grounds. There were about 40 of them, she told me, and occasionally they had bitten the kids.

Once I recovered from the shock of this revelation, I told her that getting rid of dogs would not resolve the issue; we had to stop the parties held in the playgrounds.

Khalida, however, was very pessimistic and informed me that even the minister could not stop this as there was a lot of money involved.

Suddenly, it was clear to me why civil society always flocked towards ‘innovative solutions’ to bypass the issues at hand, why it insists on creating parallel organisations, and why my board was reluctant to get involved in fixing a government school.

However, I had no option but to fight and soldier on.

I approached the then mayor of Karachi, Mustafa Kamal, who helped me by chucking the gangs out of the school premises and the weddings in the school playground came to a halt.

Yes, I did receive a few death threats along the way, but they were not real I assume because I am still alive.

Following this, a policy was framed to ensure that no government property could be used for private functions.

And from here on, there was no looking back.

We worked first on the school’s infrastructure. Broken down and crumbling walls and shabby rooms, we reasoned, were not very conducive to learning.

I persuaded Abdur Razzaq Dawood — a trustee of Zindagi Trust and now an adviser of the PTI government — to come with me to see the premises of the school.

I delivered the same breathless speech I gave to Khalida. "This school will be a paradigm shift," I said, and requested for a donation to build a state-of-the-art library in a government school for underprivileged children.

After I finished talking, Mr Dawood was, thankfully, not expressionless.

I remember, while watching the stray dogs, he said, "Roy, this is the only way to fix this system but it will not be easy."

Maybe he saw promise in my belief and passion, but he agreed to donate. That library is now a reality, the whole infrastructure of the school has been uplifted and every room has its own story.

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Administrative and academic changed

A new computer lab was established at the school.
A new computer lab was established at the school.

Of course, things are never simple in achieving change. Zindagi Trust had the notification for administrative control of SMB Fatima Jinnah School, but when I showed this notification to the teacher in a classroom, she said that the classroom I was in was of Burhania School.

A bit perplexed, I informed her that board outside read “Fatima Jinnah Government School”.

She informed me that different classrooms were part of different schools such as the Burhania School, the Mission Road School, the SMB Fatima Jinnah School, etc.

It turned out that in one campus, there were many schools. There were, in fact, eight principals in these schools located in one campus.

When I investigated further, I found, to my surprise, that there were 3,000 schools in Karachi but only 900 campuses. So, in these 900 campuses, there were 3,000 principals. It was an administrative mess.

No NGO or private sector could work in such an environment. So we called a roundtable conference with the government. No one came. Then we did everything else but the roundtable.

We tried to persuade the government to declare one campus as one school, but the government was apprehensive of the consequences.

They worried that if 3,000 schools were declared as 900 schools, the opposition would politicise the issue and protest that a huge number of schools had been closed.

I suggested that a way out was to call the process ‘consolidation of schools’. And so, 3,000 schools were consolidated as 900 campuses.

The process of consolidation is still going on but now all 900 campuses have one head and a process of accountability has been instated.

Previously, teachers were given the responsibility to be principals and they were getting administrative budgets separately.

And there were other counterproductive administrative rules.

For example, an English teacher who taught Class 2 would not teach Class 2-A because that class belonged to another school.

Or the janitorial staff would not clean Class 3-B because that was a separate school.

After consolidation, all the principals became teachers again.

We were changing the policies in FJGS left, right and centre. We then started advocacy to change policies across the board.

And I told myself again, “Ab samajh aya [now I know]” how to make reforms work.

As described above, all schools had to use government textbook board books. For the first time, we got a notification that allowed us to use supplementary books in FJGS.

Later, all schools under the matric board were officially allowed to use supplementary books, up until grade eight.

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Backing off

The Secondary Block got a revamp, complete with landscaped lawns
The Secondary Block got a revamp, complete with landscaped lawns

In 2008, we decided to take the next giant step and took the transfer of management of the government girls’ high school Khatoon-i-Pakistan School (KPS) opposite Aga Khani hospital, in Gulberg Town, Karachi. The next day, there was a surprise waiting for me.

As I was browsing through Dawn, scanning the Images section to check if the release date of my new video had been reported, I got the shock of my life.

The front page news was that Altaf Hussain, the leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement, had issued a press release against me and my organisation.

He had proclaimed that government schools should be taken back from the Zindagi Trust and the MQM stood with the government teachers. I drove to KPS. There were government teachers protesting on the road.

Some were holding a banner with the slogan: “Shehzad Roy gaye ga, hamein kya parhaayega [Shehzad Roy can only sing, what can he teach us?]” At least it rhymed, I thought to myself.

The majority of teachers at KPS wanted to be a part of the anticipated change but some among them were scared about the pending changes.

Most of the teachers at FJGS had become fellow travellers by this time and had even begun to induct their own children into the revamped school.

But there were some who had gone to KPS and warned the staff there that the takeover by ZT would mean that they would have to come on time to school, that they would have to hold all the classes, arrange after-school programmes and also attend teacher-training sessions.

A group of about 25 teachers had begun to protest the management change and used their contacts to have the MQM leader issue a statement in their favour.

The group of 25 were then joined by 250 people, who had nothing to do with education, to swell their numbers.

It was a spectacle that the media was lapping up and itself stoking with outlandish questions.

This was enough for the government to back off.

The education secretary at that time, Rizwan Memon, who later became chief secretary, told me, "Roy, I don’t want to take this notification back because what your organisation is doing is extremely important for Sindh and Pakistan. I will stand with the reforms."

This was music to my ears but I knew that if Mr Memon went against the tide, he would be transferred and the next secretary would withdraw the notification.

If you recall, back then, one could not live in Karachi if the MQM leader was giving fiery statements against you, so we too decided to back off.

I finally understood, "Ab samajh aya, ke kabhi samajh nahi aa sakta [Now I know that one can never understand] how reforms work."

Not giving up

SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School’s Primary Block before and after rehabilitation
SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School’s Primary Block before and after rehabilitation

We went back and concentrated just on FJGS.

One of the more remarkable things we were able to implement there was the teaching of Life Skills Based Education (LSBE).

Based on a curriculum developed by the NGO Aahang, LSBE has a strong component on how children can save themselves from sexual abuse.

This was a bold step as even private schools then were hesitant to implement this curriculum. But we were ready to convert the government school into an institution and catalyst for change.

In 2014, the CEO of Zindagi Trust, Abdul Haq, said it’s about time to try again to reform KPS. By this time, many of the troublesome teachers had been posted out of KPS.

However, we were aware that all sorts of illegal activities continued in KPS grounds, driven often by encroaching canteens that had been established on the premises.

This time, we took a different tack. Instead of having a notification issued, we worked purely behind the scenes.

Without announcing that we would be taking over the school for one full year, we worked with the police, the rangers, etc., to clear the grounds first. Finally, the governor of Sindh gave the orders to break all illegal blocks.

Those who had encroached on school land went to court against the police action, but against the government, not against us.

It was only when the case had been won against these elements, which we became party to, that we officially took over the school.

KPS now also stands transformed. Enrollment is up at both schools.

Before we took over, less than 200 children were attending KPS as opposed to the 400 enrolments on record.

After we took over the school in 2016, in just one year the number went up to 900.

Children studying there are not only excelling in academics but also in arts and other co-curricular activities.

FJGS and KPS have beaten the elite Karachi American School and Grammar School in football last year.

One of our girls was a national chess champion in 2014 and even the army chief, on a visit to the school, played chess with the school team.

Meanwhile, after the tragic incident of Zainab, the young girl who was abducted, raped and killed in Kasur earlier this year, we pushed for the same Aahang LSBE curriculum to be taught in all government schools in Sindh, which was accepted by the provincial government.

Now Balochistan is also implementing LSBE in its schools.

Millions of children will hopefully be saved from sexual abuse as a result of LSBE being taught in thousands of schools across Sindh and Balochistan.

As a result of the enabling environment created by Zindagi Trust in government schools, other NGOs are taking over government schools and the concept of a public-private partnership is being strengthened.

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Lessons learned

Many people think that I am an educationist, but I am not.

I just tried to create an enabling environment from the platform of Zindagi Trust and other NGOs to start a dialogue and reform government schools.

And as I said earlier, there are many things I have learnt in this journey.

But there are three most important things I’ve learned along the way.

Firstly, that the path to reform of state systems is not easy and that there will always be unexpected obstacles along the way.

Secondly, that despite the obstacles, it is the only path worth pursuing. “Laga reh.” [Keep at it.]

The third lesson may sound counter-intuitive but is equally important: that, if we really want to turn around the future of education in this country, we need to do away with the mantra of 'something is better than nothing.'

Our children deserve more.

The author is a musician and the chairman of Zindagi Trust.
He tweets @shehzadroy
Email: royzad@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 9th, 2018

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