Failing, flailing

03 Jun 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT’S a storm that’s been many decades in the making, and for the past couple of years some part of it seems to have come to a head. I speak, of course, of the country’s and parents’ challenges in educating the young — in a system that is, like many other aspects, badly broken.

The issues are well documented and fairly well understood. There are the millions of children in the country who never make it to school, or who drop out somewhere along the road. It could be that the children come from families that cannot afford education, or the children need to work to support their families. There are prejudices against girls’ education; and the problem of schools, especially secondary ones, being too vast to be viable; and even the numbers of primary schools not adequately catering to the needs of a burgeoning population.

And were these formidable hurdles not enough to contend with, there is the tinkering that the public-sector education system has been subjected to under various governments and over various decades, and its steeply falling standards. This, as we all know, has led to the privatisation of the educational sector, with the state abdicating its responsibility and yielding control/oversight, and the private schooling area operating as virtual cartels holding ‘consumers’ and various tiers of society hostage.

Private schools continue to operate as cartels holding society hostage.

In recent years, though, a reckoning of sorts seems to have been put into some sluggish motion, for a given value thereof. It started with some private-school ‘customers’ — parents — in Islamabad launching a public protest against the institution’s fee-rise practices. These were people from the higher tiers of society, thus influential, and with a voice loud enough to be heard, and the school in question was one of the best — and priciest — in the city.

From this snowballed a years’-long process of exploration that had just been waiting to happen. Some clients of other schools, in other cities, started sharing their experiences and reservations, and the murmurings grew loud enough to become a susurration. Eventually, the justice system became involved and the result was a series of court rulings, most recently at the level of the Supreme Court, that the annual rise in fees be capped at a certain point: five per cent of the basic fee.

This may sound like something of a victory, but it is somewhat pyrrhic. First, it was a fetter that was all too easy for unscrupulous institutions to get around. Fees are, of course, tabulated using various heads, the basic fee being just one component; extracurricular activities, books and materials, sport, and so on. All that schools had to do — those that wanted to, that is — is use the court-ordained scale at the basic fee level and raise the amounts on other fronts, thus accomplishing the desired hike. Many schools did and continue to do so, customers be damned.

To put it on the record, school authorities have argued that inflation and the cost of doing business have not stopped rising, and some requirements have been imposed on them that are costly, such as the raising of boundary walls and beefed-up security measures, which were an outcome of militant/terrorist attacks on some educational institutions, most grotesquely that on the Army Public School in Peshawar. Clients have the freedom, they argue, to lower their expectations and vote with their feet.

But in recent months, this too has started raising resentment in some quarters, especially in these times of rising inflation, pay cuts, and an economic slowdown that has left nobody untouched, to varying extents. I know of one top-tier school in Karachi where some parents formed a formal committee and met the school authorities to open a dialogue about the concern, and set up a negotiating table.

But it’s one thing to stand by such an uprising on a WhatsApp group, and another to meet a school principal face to face — partly because there is a fear that the participants of the ‘revolt’ are thus identified, and the fallout might be unleashed on their children who are studying in that very institution. So too did this committee find that it was a challenge to raise the numbers of parents to put up a resolute front to the school authorities. Fortunately, some stalwarts soldiered on, and in this particular case an agreement (that involved some concessions to the parents’ demands) was reached. Similar efforts have been made at a few other institutions that I am aware of, with mixed success.

The eventual answer, though, is pretty much as clear as day. The buck stops where it has always stopped: the state. Never has there been a more urgent need to find ways of improving the standards of, increasing the numbers of, and believably shoring up the reputations of public-sector institutions. The state can no longer be allowed to abdicate its mandate so completely.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2019