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There are over 30 private schools in Dhoke Hassu, Rawalpindi, and only six government schools. Most of the private schools support student strengths of over 700 easily, while the government schools educate over a 1,000 each.

The reason is a burgeoning population that is not easy to accommodate. And a conversation with teachers reveals that they are suffering from the same problems that have existed for many years.

Insufficient teaching staff, the difficulty of teaching science subjects in English, too many students with too few resources - all these came out as hurdles to improvements in education.

In the mixed Punjabi/Pathan community of Dhok Hassu, language became problematic on another level. “When we get Pathan students, it takes half a year just to teach them Urdu and that puts them at a disadvantage,” explained one teacher.

Teachers can only be hired on the basis of their domicile, so the schools cannot get Pushto speaking teachers easily in Punjab school.

But the situation on the ground misrepresents the transformation that has taken place at the administrative level in Punjab education department since last year.

Under the leadership of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, and with guidance from donor organisations like the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID), since March 2011, the ‘Chief Minister’s School Reforms Roadmap’ is being rigorously implemented throughout Punjab.

“This programme focuses on three aspects: access to schools, quality of education and governance. It started as the Punjab education sector reform programme a couple of years ago and has been continued as the chief minister’s roadmap reform programme from 2011,” explained a government official.

Simply put, the programme has aims from the smallest to the biggest – provision of working facilities, hundred per cent enrolment and retention rates, merit-based hiring and a detailed ranking and targeting system devised by the Punjab Monitoring and Implementation Unit (PMIU) in coordination with DFID.

Governance is the most stressed factor right now and the programme uses districts and division ranking systems relying on indicators like whether textbooks have been provided or not, if facilities are in working orders, how often teachers and students are present and so on.

“The idea is to rank districts on these indicators and create competition among them to improve performance,” explained the government official.

And on the ground, some changes are visible. Teachers from schools all over Punjab acknowledge regular visits from monitors of PMIU and coaches who come and record teacher attendance, check on lesson plans and teaching.

In Dhok Hassu, construction work is ongoing at government boy’s high school and a number of classrooms are being added to the very congested and dark existing ones. “We have been told to keep the facilities in good condition and ensure that the bathrooms are in working order,” said one teacher, when asked what the reform programme entailed.

Competition has also put a lot of pressure on Executive District Officers (EDOs) of education and District Coordinator Officers (DCOs) of each district. In the quarterly rankings that have been released since March 2011, the chief minister has personally headed the sessions and gotten hold of DCOs of districts that ranked the highest or lowest – to congratulate them or encourage them as per need.

Where comes the school

If the biggest critique in education, like other departments, is one of a failure to govern or show political will, then this criticism does not stand true in Punjab anymore.

While, according to Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey, net enrolment levels in Punjab have only improved from 58 per cent in 2004-2005 to 62 per cent in 2010-2011 for the primary levels (6-10 years of age), figures from PMIU reveal that in most basic indicators improvement has become visible even in a year.

Student attendance in Punjab public schools has improved from 72 per cent to 87 per cent and teacher absenteeism reduced from 18 per cent to 12 per cent. Similarly, thousands of teachers have been hired ‘on merit’, according to most reports.

And this quantitative approach shows that it creates its own problems as nowhere in the system are teachers quite clear about what is being addressed through the demands for improved facilities and the vast collection of data.

In a research paper titled ‘Learning in Public Schools’ by Tahir Andrabi et al. and sponsored by Society for Advancement of Education (SAHE), the writers observe, “not surprisingly perhaps, nearly 80 per cent of all head teachers stated that student/teacher attendance and maintenance of discipline was their top priority for the school. Only twenty per cent considered matters of learning and teaching as their priority.”

In fact, the over all teaching system remains deeply flawed be it in teacher training, examinations or monitoring itself.

“There are lots of issues with who is doing the teacher training, the books and lesson plans that are being used and really, who the teachers are,” said Mr. Abbas Rasheed, Chief Executive SAHE.

And the extensive administration mechanisms mean that the system remains extremely centralised with the provincial government not ceding control or resources to individual school units or clusters.

Donor organisations point out that yearly financial allocations remain miniscule at Rs20,000 for primary schools and Rs50,000 for secondary schools, tying their hands when it comes to actually achieving change.

“What needs to be done is to bring the ability to act closer to the schools while district and provincial governments continue to monitor,” said Mr Rasheed, adding that one way to achieve that would be by creating clusters of schools and putting them in the supervision of the high school in the area.

But in the existing structure, such an option is not possible, and the hope on the government’s end is that its mechanisms will have a trickle down affect as it continues to monitor and rank districts, and train thousands of teachers.

“Yes there are problems in our monitoring mechanisms, but more accountability will lead to improvements in quality over time – when more teachers and more students spend more time at the school, then it will make a difference,” said a government official requesting anonymity.

“Our indicators have consistently improved and we are reaching the maximum point. Now it needs to be sustained,” summarized the government official.