NON-FICTION: THE PROBLEM WITH EDUCATION REFORM

Published September 5, 2021
An open-air school in a remote village in Toba Tek Singh, Punjab
An open-air school in a remote village in Toba Tek Singh, Punjab

Agents of Change: The Problematic Landscape of Pakistan’s K-12 Education and the People Leading the Change by Amjad Noorani and Nadeem Hussain takes a very clear line: the Pakistani education system is not performing well at all.

With 20-odd million 5-16 year olds out of school, the low quality of education in most public and low- to medium-fee private schools, and major inequity and inequality issues, the sector clearly needs reforms.

But these reforms are not just about opening more schools (definitely needed) or spending more money (again, definitely needed). They have to be quite comprehensive and must have the enthusiastic support of the majority of Pakistanis to have any chance of being properly worked out and meaningfully implemented.

 Plenty of lessons are available for us out there in terms of how quality education can be delivered (the book discusses the example of The Citizens Foundation [TCF] in great detail); how it can be transformative for individuals, families and localities (exemplified by some families who’ve lived through the TCF experience); and how “agents of change” (exemplified through TCF directors and others) are already available and working tirelessly.

What is needed is to combine it all for a larger movement for change. Authors Noorani and Hussain argue that, without this larger movement, which involves the majority of Pakistanis and their ability to put pressure on political representatives, our political and social system and overall socio-economic set-up, real change cannot, and will not, happen.

The real question, then, is how do we create this movement and pressure for change? The book offers one way forward, in terms of a platform for education advocacy.

 Not much can be disputed with the book’s larger argument. Pakistan’s education sector is, indeed, doing very poorly. Too many children do not attend schools or drop out before matriculating. The quality, as evidenced by test/examination scores, is poor in general, leaving aside the two or three percent of high-fee elite public and private sector schools.

Education in Pakistan desperately needs reform. A book argues that without a larger advocacy movement that puts pressure on political representatives, real change can’t, and won’t, happen

The system is excessively fragmented, where access to quality education is largely determined by parental income/wealth, gender, geography, ethnicity and religion; not on merit and/or as a matter of right. Instead of creating equal opportunities or moving us in that direction, the education system is further entrenching existing trends in inequality and inequity and exacerbating them over generations.

 It’s not that governments haven’t been attempting reforms. Reforms have been implemented and steady progress been made, but slowly and unevenly. If we continue at this pace, we won’t be able to live up to the promise — stated as a basic right in Article 25A of the Constitution — of providing every child 10 years’ of quality education for generations to come.

The slow pace will also have significant costs in terms of losses in economic growth and national well-being. For better results, we need a massive effort; more of the same, and at the same pace, will not do.

 There are definitely “candles in the dark”, some islands of good practice. Good schools and excellent teachers exist still. Some for-profit, and many non-profit, organisations are delivering excellent and transformational results. There are hundreds of thousands of parents, teachers, administrators, policymakers and policy-implementers who are working hard. There are individuals punching way above their weight and becoming catalysts, transforming the efforts of many other individuals.

 TCF has some 1,600 schools spread all over Pakistan, with more than 250,000 children enrolled. It is, probably, Pakistan’s largest education non-profit. Its students’ test scores and achievements post-intermediate; its quality of textbooks; teacher selection and training processes; quality, administrative and financial controls; feedback mechanisms and overall management practices all tell a wonderful story of dedication, perseverance and well-deserved success.

The examples of individual transformation, chronicled in the book, provide excellent micro-level details on what quality education can achieve, illustrating how parental dedication to the education process changed children’s lives within a decade or so, and changed family fortunes in a matter of a few decades.

The book also interviews several “agents of change” engaged in transforming the education landscape: Dr Ishrat Husain, who turned around the Institute of Business Administration (IBA); Tooba Akhtar, who leads the Leadership and Training team at Teach for Pakistan; Arif Irfanullah, founder of Advanced Academics Plus (AAP); Shehzad Roy, who not only turned around a school, but vociferously advocates for quality education for all, and many others.

Collectively, they give us a good sense of how a significant number of individuals are striving to improve education’s status quo. Some have already been very successful; many others are well on the way to achieving success.

But despite all this, the impact is not enough and, more importantly, is not moving the system as a whole. A much larger effort is required, and this needs the involvement of a larger body of citizens. People have to demand better education for their children and articulate this demand at multiple levels in society. From local politicians to national leaders, all must feel the pressure of this demand.

When budgets are being made, political, economic and development priorities are being debated and set, when achievements are being recognised, education has to figure prominently on the agenda. Until Pakistan’s citizens collectively elevate it to top priority, it will be hard to realise the dream of quality education for all.

The authors bolster their case for this involvement of citizens through three appendices — written by well-known education experts — that talk of different aspects of the political economy of education reforms. Dr Irfan Muzaffar argues that, where competition for resources is keener, winning coalitions tend to be smaller and more tightly knit and benefits, for coalition partners, need to be more visible and clearly attributable. Education does not fit the mould well.

Dr Salman Humayun and Ehtisham Adil argue that we need more effective political and policy advocacy in education. Advocacy groups can do a lot. Dr Anjum Altaf argues that, since the probability of any social revolution is low, forming larger civic and political coalitions might be the only way forward for the moment.

Finally, the authors share news that they are proposing a platform to form a coalition for supporting education advocacy and reforms. They would like more people, convinced of the need to advocate for education, to join the coalition, so that the impact of good things being done can be expanded and more pressure can be put on the government.

As for the book’s style, some parts are written analytically, while other chapters provide interview transcripts, making the whole quite uneven. The three appendices could potentially have been adjusted in the main body and the book could have been turned into an edited volume. The chapter on madressah education comes across as a bit of a standalone. Even within chapters, the narrative style changes significantly at times as the authors go from analytical, to interview, to personal and back.

While these peculiarities do not reduce readability, it’s a surprising way of putting a book together and, at times, a bit jarring. The macro and the micro are intertwined, as are the personal and the analytical. Similarly, there is constant movement and dialogue between policy and practice. Sometimes I found it hard to understand how to navigate the various perspectives and how to put them together to get an overall picture.

The book raises the right questions and issues at the macro level. It provides interesting insights from micro engagements and successes. But how do we move from the micro to the macro remains the ultimate question. Can the coalition and the platform the authors are proposing help in bridging the gulf? This remains to be seen.

The reviewer is associate professor of economics and education, dean at Lums and senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS). He can be reached at faisal.bari@ideaspak.org and tweets @BariFaisal

Agents of Change: The Problematic Landscape of Pakistan’s K-12 Education and the People Leading the Change
By Amjad Noorani and Nadeem Hussain
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0190705503
477pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 5th, 2021

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