Is education a priority for the PTI?

The government is yet to have an implementable policy on the matter.
Published August 21, 2019

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) completed its one year in government last week.

This article undertakes a systematic evaluation of the party's education policy and performance so far, through a two-part analysis on schooling and higher education. This first part evaluates the PTI’s policies and performance in relation to primary and secondary education.

The policy

In line with its predecessors, the PTI government continued with a "human capital" approach to education, in its effort to "unleash" the untapped potential of the second youngest population in the world.

Improving access and quality of educational institutions was considered central in capturing this potential, also reinforced through its party manifesto. A national task force on education comprising of experts from across different sectors was formed for this purpose.

The PTI’s more focused agenda for education outlined four priority areas in its National Education Policy Framework (NEPF) 2018: decrease the number of out of school children (OOSC) and increase school participation, ensure a uniform education system across Pakistan, improve quality and enhance access and relevance of skills training.

Priority 1 — OOSC: The first objective was to address the challenge of the 22.5 million OOSC. This number includes more girls than boys, with differences across class and geographical location. This number was particularly high at the secondary level. An additional problem was of student retention which also varied across and within provinces, urban centres and rural areas.

In order to address this problem, the PTI government proposed key actions related to school infrastructure, finance, the formulation of innovative solutions, the promotion of non-formal programs and utilisation of technology.

School infrastructure included consolidating primary, middle and high school in order to maximise the use of existing schools, introducing afternoon shifts in cases of school shortages, improving facilities in schools to ensure retention and attract more students, establishing either new schools or upgrading existing schools, providing transportation in remote areas to attract more students and operationalising unused public building for schools.

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Finance included removing financial barriers through cash transfers under the Benazir Income Support Programme, improving the existing provision of stipends to girls for transition to secondary schooling, providing immediate and necessary funds to provinces for the purpose of ensuring education access in disadvantaged areas and improving coordination with the finance department to ensure efficient and timely transfer and utilisation of education budgets.

Innovative solutions included starting programs like Taleemi Razakar/Teach for Pakistan, while non-formal programmes were to be further strengthened and communities mobilised to get OOSC back in school.

Technology was to be used for improving teacher and student knowledge, to provide free education online, as well as for improving access to education in remote areas and for improving the education management systems.

Priority 2 — uniform education system: The second objective was to address the problem of a uniform education for all that could ensure equality in quality across the three systems of schooling in Pakistan — public, private and madrassa.

This was to be achieved through the selection of a common curriculum framework and the establishment of a national curriculum council, streamlining national teaching and learning standards, ensuring the teaching of core subjects, ensuring a multi-lingual policy with English as the second language, strengthening regulatory bodies to ensure coordination across the different school systems, ensuring a common assessment and examination mechanism while enhancing the capacity of the National Education Assessment System as well as the Inter Board Committee of Chairmen (IBCC), raising awareness about the quality of government school education through campaigns and reforms and strengthening community action through the dissemination of education information.

Priority 3 — improve quality: Education quality was linked to the problem of quality instruction and teacher training programmes.

In order to overcome this problem, the focus was on improving teacher management by recruiting teachers with a strong background in math, science and english while ensuring continuous professional development of teachers for the purpose of multi-grade teaching, building political will around teacher certification and licencing reforms, ensuring a fair and equitable process of teachers placement, ensuring implementation of early childhood education and development, strengthening existing student and quality assessments as well as introducing national student assessment surveys, ensuring the availability of teaching and learning resources and their utilisation in schools and increasing access to information about nutrition and stunting for mothers and students.

Priority 4 — enhance access and relevance of skills training: Strengthening the technical and vocational education sector was also an important priority for this government.

This was going to be undertaken through a common certification framework, promoting public partnerships with industry, the private sector and donors, including setting up industry-led skills councils, increasing the number of skilled workers in priority areas for economic growth, promoting the "skills brand" through campaigns, strengthening and improving quality and the institutional framework of this sector and introducing a national skills information system to ensure better student placement and planning.

For all these four priority areas, the government was to track and monitor results, ensuring that their objectives were met. Translating this policy framework into implementable policies is a task that the PTI has yet to undertake, though different provinces have started drafting their own implementation plans.

While this policy framework informs the entire tenure of this government, and not simply its first year in power, an effective implementation plan is nonetheless needed for any of these objectives to be fulfilled.

The implementation madness

The extent to which education is a priority for the PTI government can be gauged from the annual budget for 2019-2020, which was drastically reduced across primary, secondary and higher education.

The lack of clarity in their education agenda is evident in the breakdown of the education budget: Education Affairs and Services have a reduced budget estimate of Rs77,262 million against Rs97,155 million in revised estimates from 2018-19.

84.4 per cent of this budget has been allocated to the Tertiary Education Affairs and Services to meet Priority 4 of the government’s education objectives, in order to push its human capital approach. Yet, the higher education budget has been slashed, with pressure placed on students to meet the financial responsibility.

While the second part of this evaluation next week will explore the PTI's higher education policy, it is important to highlight that the government’s objective of ensuring education equality in quality has been largely compromised through these cuts.

Budget cuts for the Pre-Primary and Primary Education Affairs Services from Rs10,120 million in revised 2018-19 estimates to an alarmingly low amount of Rs2,831 million in 2019-20 and from Rs12,358 million in revised 2018-19 estimates to Rs6,718 million in 2019-20 for the Secondary Education Affairs and Services undermines the government’s ability to meet its primary priorities as outlined in the NEPF 2018.

Protecting the 18th Amendment

The long-term success of any education reform in Pakistan depends on strengthening the capacity of provincial governments’ education departments as per the 18th Amendment and thereby ensuring the implementation of Article 25A, which was the underlying objective of the NEPF.

Provincial governments under the 18th Amendment have the responsibility of implementing education policy and reforms, according to the needs of their respective provinces. However, the existing trust deficit between the federal ministry and the provinces has implications for education reforms in the country.

Capacity building includes support for the various curriculum and textbook boards, teacher training institutions, assessment and examination wings across the provinces, without interfering or undermining the autonomy of each provincial education department.

While the focus of this analysis is on PTI’s education policy, the state of education and reform at the provincial level also needs to be examined, particularly in light of the NEPF’s objective of educational uniformity.

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The Punjab government has introduced its education policy under the New Deal 2018-2023. Despite the claim of the chief minister that education was ignored in this province for the last 70 years, Punjab is at an advantage having benefitted from reform efforts since as early as 2003. These efforts were successful to an extent, though success rates varied across districts.

The PTI may claim the newness of the 2018-2023 deal, yet the objectives of reducing OOSC numbers, ensuring quality education through textbook reform and teacher training, focusing on early education and pre-primary education, improving examination and evaluation and building the capacity of the education sector is similar to the objectives of the previous government, which also ensures the continuity of reform policy — a continuity that is important for strengthening the education sector.

Given the strength of its existing infrastructure, the Punjab government has the most detailed implementation plan compared to the other provinces, with the School Education Department having developed a comprehensive action plan for delivery against its set targets for the next four years.

This is an important achievement especially given the nature of uncertainty that the department has witnessed in its first eight months with the dismissal and appointment of seven secretaries of higher education and four secretaries for school education.

The government’s priorities in relation to curricular and textbook reform remains to be seen, as new textbooks will be introduced for the 2020 academic year in line with the province’s own curriculum, with science and math textbooks being developed in Urdu till grade five.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), education reforms under the PTI provincial government had some success. Education in different parts of the province had suffered from neglect at various points in the past two decades, a consequence of the security situation.

However, as highlighted by Alif Ailaan in its analysis of KP education reforms for the last five years, the province has witnessed improvements in school infrastructure and teacher training and recruitment.

The government, though, plans to continue focusing on reducing OOSC, increasing enrollment for girls at the secondary level, improving student learning outcomes by improving quality in teaching and learning, ensuring better allocation of budget and addressing regional disparity in provision and access to education within the province.

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In evaluating the state of education in Balochistan, Alif Ailaan highlights extreme inequality as the defining feature of the education landscape. Given the security situation, education provision drastically varies across the province. Under the previous government's education reforms, some gains have been made in relation to teacher recruitment and slight improvement in the provision of post-primary education.

However, the problem of teacher absenteeism continues. To improve access to education, the Balochistan government will be upgrading 147 government schools and making 1,800 schools functional.

While the focus of this article is on the PTI, it is worth mentioning that implementation of any policy driven from the NEPF will only be successful if the provincial government is on board, which is equally true for Sindh.

Without addressing the increasing trust deficit between the federal and Sindh governments, educational reforms may suffer, especially in light of the push towards uniformity of the education system across Pakistan.

While the Sindh government has proposed its own education road map, the recent reshuffling of the Sindh ministries may impact implementation. Such political tensions are only going derail education reform efforts on the ground.

Policies of provincial governments towards reducing the number of OOSC by providing access to quality education, in line with Priorities 1 and 3 of the NEPF, is already being implemented through education reform efforts of the previous governments. However, Priority 2 may pose a challenge depending on how the federal government plans on implementing it.

Uniformity and the medium of instruction

The objective of a uniform education system is to overcome existing disparity between the different education systems. For the PTI government, one way of ensuring uniformity is through a uniform curriculum and language, where Urdu is being promoted as the medium of instruction and English taught as a second language.

The implementation of such an objective, the importance of balancing the strengths and weaknesses of these different educational institutions and the capacity of provincial education departments without compromising quality remains to be seen.

However, the idea of uniformity that is being promoted also needs to be further examined by the PTI government. If uniformity is in relation to the human capital approach towards education, in which the objective of education is directly linked to the demands of the market, then uniformity is related to equality in opportunity, one that can be achieved through improvement in quality and which does not always equate with uniformity.

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While uniformity is a noble ideal, until the existing problems as highlighted in the government’s priority areas 1, 3 and 4 are not addressed, such uniformity may not be possible. This is not to dismiss the important task of improving quality education across the sector.

The objective of uniformity further becomes problematic if the trust deficit between the provincial and provincial governments is not addressed. The danger that such interventions by the federal government may undermine the sanctity of the 18th Amendment is a cause of concern for the provincial governments.

It is, therefore, in the interest of the federal Ministry of Education to include provincial education departments in drafting and implementing their policies and from setting up a national task force on education that should be representative of all provinces (including Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir that were not discussed in this article), to setting the objective of a national curriculum and to debating the medium of instruction especially in relation to the different capacities of teacher training departments across the provinces.

Moving forward

The PTI in its first year in government is yet to have a clear, implementable education policy. The ambitions and priorities set out in NEPF are further compromised under the government’s austerity measures that have increasingly targeted education through budget cuts, that have resulted in greater inequality in access to education, undermining efforts towards ensuring quality education for all.

Added to this are disruptions within provincial education departments with change in leadership and political tensions that also undermine the critical continuity in education reform.

It is also important to recognise that, while the importance of education for the purpose of employability in the market cannot be overlooked, especially in this economy, education at the same time should not be limited to the market.

The importance of the arts and humanities need to be recognised in primary and secondary education. The critical skills that are developed, that allow students to think beyond the limits of a set curriculum, are only possible through a holistic approach to education, where the arts and humanities are just as central as the sciences.

The extent to which the PTI government moving forward will consider this important in the age of austerity remains to be seen; but the potential of the Pakistani youth can be unleashed in different ways, not just to serve the market. This one year should be an opportunity of introspection for the PTI government before it moves forward.

Illustration by Mushba Said

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