I WAS introduced to the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, in 2009. She talks of the reductionist trap people fall into when faced with a stereotypical narrative about a group. The danger inherent in the single story is that we tend to reduce people and ideas into a single perspective and then tend to make that the only perspective.
Several articles and letters have been published in the last few weeks about the 20 per cent fee reduction in two-month school fees. It is then that Adichie’s talk came to mind.
For the past few years, policymakers have reduced pretty much all issues relating to the education sector to a narrative where all private school owners are cast as villains. The conventional plot line is that they feed off parents’ hard-earned money, while simultaneously devouring huge amounts of profit from low-cost operations and poor quality and standards.
Every problem in education, it seems, can be addressed through monitoring the excessive flow of money into school owners’ pockets. If the nation is beset with poor education outcomes, the reason is not structural problems in government spending and lack of quality public education services. It is because of criminal private school owners sneaking funds into their pockets.
With this narrative firmly in place, the government doesn’t really need to do much. A populist strategy like this makes parents feel like they are truly being cared for, while simultaneously diffusing focus from actual areas such as public and private sector education reforms including quality regulation and inspection bodies, language policies, literacy development, teacher training and capacity building, textbook and curriculum development etc.
As parents rally support for short-term fee reduction campaigns, the majority of private schools working on low margins are struggling to pay rents, salaries and meet operation costs. These are the schools that have filled in the gap where public schools have failed to deliver.
Currently, in Pakistan, over 22 million children are out of school. One wonders if private schools are forced out of business, how much higher would this figure be?
We need to save schools from shutting down. We need to give room to innovate, progress and improve. We need to shift the discussion from price control to quality control. We need to change the narrative.
Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2020