THE education sector is for once under the spotlight and is receiving some attention from the higher quarters. We should be grateful for that.
But it is not clear if the policymakers have made field trips to get a true picture of the working — or dysfunctional — state of our schools which they are trying to improve. It would help if they did. My recent visits to government schools in Orangi have been an eye-opener.
Orangi was at one time described as the biggest katchi abadi in the country with a population of a million, where the legendary Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan tried his 'research and extension'- based social engineering. According to an OPP survey of 2003 Orangi has 69 government schools — the city district government puts the figure at 170. The OPP surveyors actually counted the schools, the CDGK must have listed them on paper.
It is these public sector schools that caught my attention. They are institutions that technically belong to all of us but regrettably no one feels a sense of ownership towards them. They present a picture of contrasts. Had the government's performance been exemplary there would have been no need for the OPP.
Two schools that I visited were what the education department terms 'non-functional'. The media dubs them as 'ghost schools' as that sounds more exciting. One was inaccessible because a wide nullah encircled it. The building stood in splendid isolation with a plaque announcing its name, a relic of the past that had seen glorious days.
Another had a huge compound that would be the envy of any developer/builder. This double-storeyed structure meant to house children to groom their minds and build their future had been taken over by a member of the staff and was being used as his personal residence. Curtains and laundry fluttered gently from the upper floor windows. The bare classrooms showed no sign of their having heard the patter of young feet. The teacher-cum-resident confidently explained away the missing children saying they had gone home.
To reach the third school we had to drive through a graveyard. The school had just dispersed. The teachers had gone home but some students were loitering around. They offered to give us a conducted tour. The sewage was flowing through the courtyard which we had to cross to take a peep into two dingy rooms. The third was locked and we were duly informed that it contained a grave that the authorities had considered prudent not to disturb.
This would have been the most disillusioning experience of my life had it not been for the fourth school that we visited. It restored my hope that we should not give up on the public sector though the government appears to be doing just that.
The headmaster of this school located in SITE Town, Mr Tayyab Husain, manages to carry on with a cheerful demeanour and a commitment I have not seen in a government school teacher for a long time. He said he was there to serve the children, a job he had been doing for over 25 years. The school was freshly painted as the school management committee's fund had been released after three years — it is supposed to be given every year.
The school, from prep to Grade V, was chock-a-block with students. It was difficult to confirm the precise enrolment figure claimed as 400 plus. Absenteeism is high, yet there were between 50 and 60 children in each class. Many small children who are let out to play during recess go home and don't return. It is a co-ed school but girls seem to outnumber boys — now a common phenomenon.
The teachers were present for their duty though one cannot vouchsafe for the quality of education being provided. It would be unkind to grumble because the teachers struggle against heavy odds. The large class size makes individual attention impossible. There is the language problem. The children were mainly Pushto speaking from the surrounding locality where factory workers live.
The new entrants do not understand Urdu and teachers have to use their personal skills to communicate with the small children. As they struggled to become proficient in Urdu they had to start learning English as well. Small wonder the younger ones just went home at break time.
Mr Husain wants the education department to sanction a secondary school on his premises in the afternoon. He is sad that all the girls studying in the primary section become dropouts once they pass Class V. There is no secondary school in the vicinity and the parents who are conservative will not send their daughters to a distant neighbourhood to continue their studies.
Why I have hope in Mr Husain, and the likes of him, is that he is keeping the school running and mobilises his teachers to attend. What is more, he cares about the future of his students.
These are the basics that are needed. If the government really wants to overhaul the public-sector schooling system, it has a base to build on. The teachers have large classes? Provide more teachers. There is a language problem? Get a few Pushto-speaking assistant teachers to help. The textbooks are not appropriate? Revise them. The examination system is in a shambles? Reform it.
All this can be done only if there is a school that is functioning. If schools do not exist on the ground you can only introduce changes in the air. It all boils down to monitoring and enforcing financial transparency. After an intensive shake-up, when all fake schools are struck off the account books, the education department will find it has more resources at its disposal and it can plan more realistically.
When funds are poured into a project without adequate capacity building it only leads to corruption that takes the form of turning a blind eye to absenteeism — said to be 32 per cent in schools by Omar Azfar and Sara F. Azfar in their research study on corruption in the education sector. But a school that actually functions makes such corruption more difficult.