Pakistan’s parliament, in November, passed a bill to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16 in schools established by the federal government and local government in the capital. The bill is a giant step towards improving education in Pakistan.
Some features of the bill where some amendments or some additions/clarifications in the rules are required, in my view, are as follows:
The bill states that the government shall establish a school in each neighbourhood within a period of three years. In order to educate the 25 million children who are presently out-of-school, the federal and provincial governments need to build thousands of schools, costing over a trillion in rupees that the government does not have. Also, there is enormous amount of corruption in building schools.
However, the good part is that the bill leaves room for the private sector to build and operate low-cost schools, whereas the government can limit its role to providing scholarships to the needy students studying in these low-cost private schools.
Section 10 (a) of the bill allows the government to provide aid or grants to private schools that are providing free education to children. The government needs to provide enough aid and grants to low-cost private schools to not only cover their expenses, but also leave some profit margin to attract the private sector to open and run such schools.
The best way for the government is to provide scholarships of say Rs500 per month for each student at the primary level and Rs1,000 a month per student at the secondary level. These amounts are in line with what low-cost private schools are charging at present. Poor parents can admit their child to any low-cost private school of their liking. The scholarship amount will be paid by the government directly to the low-cost private school on a monthly basis on behalf of that student.
Presently, 39 per cent of government schools up to the elementary level lack boundary walls, 35 per cent do not possess a drinking water facility, 38 per cent are without latrines, and 61 per cent do not have electricity. By allowing the private sector to build and operate schools, the provincial governments will be able to free about Rs58 billion presently earmarked for educational development.
These funds can be better utilised to upgrade the existing schools. The Indian Supreme Court, in a landmark order passed in October held that all government and private schools nationwide must provide sanitation facilities and clean drinking water within six months.
The bill carries an excellent proposal of setting up school management committees in every school owned by the government or receiving government aid/grants. The committees shall consist of teachers, parents and government representatives.
Two-third of the members of such committees in each school shall be parents, and one-third women.
The committee shall: (i) monitor the general working of the school; (ii) monitor the utilisation of aids and grants received from the government; and (iii) prepare and recommend the annual development plan of the school. This will result in decentralisation of some decision-making powers at the school level, and away from government officials sitting hundreds of miles away from the schools in some cases, and having no idea about the issues facing such schools.
Also, since 50 per cent of the members of the committee will be parents of children studying in the school, they will have a direct stake in the proper functioning of the school. This system has worked very well in countries where it has been implemented. These committees should also be empowered to (i) monitor and evaluate the performance of schools; (ii) determine the salary and allowances payable to, and terms and conditions of teachers’ services; and (iii) reward and penalise the teachers based on their performance.
The bill has another good feature of authorising constitution of an education advisory council that shall advise the government on implementation of the provisions of this act in an effective manner.
The council will consist of nine members primarily having a background in education and child development. In my view in addition to education experts, senior executives of corporations, and renowned businessmen and professionals should also be inducted in such councils as they have the experience of managing, monitoring and evaluating a large workforce, and can also bring entrepreneurship to basic education, which is the missing element at present.
The council should be established as an elementary education commission, similar to the Higher Education Commission, but focus on primary and secondary education rather than higher education. The commission should enjoy complete independence and autonomy to carry out its functions and responsibilities. These commissions should report directly to the prime minister/chief ministers.
Their role and responsibilities should be expanded to include:
• Supervise, evaluate and monitor performance of both government schools and low-cost private schools receiving government funding.
• Develop a uniform curriculum defining which subjects may be taught.
• Develop a system of accountability and transparency for all schools.
•Ensure that the schools are offering and maintaining a good standard of education. The standard can be defined as the minimum passing rate of students in a school. Board examinations should be conducted for all schools and all grades starting from classes one to 12. If a school fails to achieve a certain overall passing rate, the principal and teachers of the school should be held accountable. Low-cost private schools funded by the government that do not meet the basic standards should not qualify for education financing any more, and children should be moved to other low-cost private schools that meet such standards. The overall passing rates for all classes and the ranking of the school, based on the passing rates, be posted in all schools, and also communicated to students and parents.
• Develop a student information system to track every student enrolled.
• Ensure and monitor admission, attendance and completion of education by every child.
• Continuously offer professional development programmes for school teachers and administrators.
• Define the parent-teacher ratio and ensure that the same is maintained by schools.
• Work on raising funds not only from government sources but also multinational donors and local charities.
• The commissions will, however, NOT get involved in the management and running of the schools.
The bill is silent on how the funding will be raised to educate the millions that are presently out of school in the country. The total annual cost to educate all children presently not enrolled in schools, but who wish to be in school, based on the scholarship/voucher system discussed above is estimated at Rs136 billion, which amounts to less than one per cent of the GDP of Pakistan or about three per cent of the government’s overall budget. The federal and provincial governments can increase tax revenues and/or reduce non-productive spending to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide quality education to all children.
Federal government tax and non-tax revenues at about nine per cent of the GDP, and provincial government tax revenues of less than one per cent of their respective GDPs are among the lowest in the world. These can be easily increased by taxing all sources of income, and improving tax collection.
Similarly, rationalising of military spending, and reforming state-owned enterprises such as Pepco, Wapda, Pakistan Railways, PIA, Pakistan Steel Mills, etc., can easily create the fiscal space to increase education spending.
Therefore, it is not a question of shortage of finances which deprives millions of children from obtaining a decent education in Pakistan, but a lack of will on the part of the government to fulfill its constitutional obligation to educate all children here.