People & Society

Why Punjab is outsourcing its public schools

Published 02 Oct, 2017 05:08am
A boy learning at a government primary school in Jhang | Murtaza Ali, White Star
A boy learning at a government primary school in Jhang | Murtaza Ali, White Star

Momina and Fatima sit on either side of their grandfather Muhammad Sattar at a small shop next to a mosque. They eagerly turn to their favourite lessons in their textbooks, comfortably spelling out basic words in English. Their 55-year-old grandfather beams at them with satisfaction.

The girls are students of grade one at a government primary school in their native village, Chandair, on the eastern outskirts of Lahore. Shakil Muhammad Shakil, who studied at the same school in the 1990s, was taught the English alphabet only after entering sixth grade at a middle school in a neighbouring village. Back then, Urdu was the only medium of instruction at the school in his own village, located 2.5 kilometres from Pakistan’s border with India at Wagah.

Spread over seven kanals of land, the school in Chandair was built in 2007 next to the village graveyard. Its classrooms are to one side of an unkempt, weed-riddled ground that lies behind an 11-feet tall red-brick boundary wall. It is believed that the building was built through the efforts of an elderly school teacher Abdul Waheed. Nearly 40 years ago, he started teaching children of Chandair under the shade of a tree. People did not understand the importance of education, Waheed says as he talks of the school’s early days.

The government, too, did not bother with providing physical infrastructure for the school even though some of its outgoing students were entering institutions of higher learning and landing decent jobs. Ten years ago, a retired officer of the National Logistics Cell (NLC), a military-run construction and transport firm, came to the area on a preaching trip. He helped Waheed find money and land to build the school. The villagers showed tremendous support for the project. This is how the building came into existence.

In 2012, Chandair’s first private primary school opened its doors to students. It started providing education in English from the most basic grade. By 2015, enrolment at the government school dropped by 50 per cent. Parents wanted their children to learn English first and foremost.

It was then that the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) sent its officials to take over the government school. “I was teaching a class when the assistant education officer arrived with a PEF team,” says Waheed. They told him that the school was missing its enrolment targets and was being handed over to private management.

A former student of the school is now a teacher there. She recalls its condition before the takeover. Children did not have shoes, let alone uniforms, she says. “Students would come and go as they pleased. There was no discipline.”

All that has changed. Students arrive in school neatly dressed. They bring their books, provided free by the government, in tidy school bags. In an effort to discourage parents from taking children out of school to put them to work, the Punjab Rural Support Programme offers parents 500 rupees each month for every child who attends school.

Sattar was so impressed that he shifted his grandchildren to the outsourced school from the private one. There, teachers give extra attention to students and regularly meet parents to inform them about their children’s progress, he says. “Children are actually learning.”

Sir Michael Barber is a renowned educationist and a special representative for Pakistan working with the Department for International Development, a British government donor agency. He is the proponent of ‘deliverology’, a policy paradigm that helps governments improve service delivery to citizens without having to privatise state-provided amenities such as education and healthcare and by setting measurable targets.

He met Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif in 2010 to discuss how to get a school system to work in the province. The meeting led to his appointment as co-chairperson of the Punjab Education Task Force. He set up targets for the provincial government on “teacher presence, student attendance, fixing buildings, getting textbooks and teacher guides into the school system,” Barber says in a short film he made about what he calls the Punjab School Reforms Roadmap, a series of initiatives to bring teachers back into classrooms and increase enrolment. “The question the roadmap asks is not how we improve the government sector but rather how we can get every child in Punjab a good education, regardless of whether they are in the public or private sector,” he says.

Parts of the roadmap consist of collecting data on specific indicators every month, appointing educators and education administrators at the district level on merit, and creating simple and easy lesson plans for English, mathematics and science to improve the quality of education. All this is to be achieved through public-private partnerships — the state providing the infrastructure and monitoring mechanisms; the private sector providing teachers and management staff.

These partnerships are overseen by the PEF.

On an early July morning this year, Qamarul Islam Raja is sitting at the PEF’s Model Town office in Lahore. With degrees in engineering and political science along with membership in the Punjab Assembly representing the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Raja juggles the role of PEF chairman with the chairmanship of Saaf Pani Project, another provincial government initiative. “Stringent accountability is key. Senior directors were shown the door within a week after I took charge,” he says.

A classroom in a Lahore township school run by an NGO | Murtaza Ali, White Star
A classroom in a Lahore township school run by an NGO | Murtaza Ali, White Star

The PEF was established through a legislative act in 1991, originally to promote access to quality education by providing loans and grants to private firms and individuals intending to set up schools. All its executive power was vested with the chief minister and a senior official of the provincial government who would be its chairman and managing director simultaneously. A subsequent law passed in 2004 provided for a board of directors empowered to select a chairman, a managing director and other employees. The PEF’s focus also changed to building capacity among teachers and providing incentives to students, teachers and educational institutions. It is now running a large experiment by outsourcing operational management of under-performing schools to the private sector, says Raja.

Titled as the Public School Support Program (PSSP), the experiment allows provincial authorities to outsource any government school with less than 20 students or any that scores less than 25 per cent in the Punjab Examination Commission tests. Since its launch in December 2015, it has resulted in the transfer of nearly 4,300 schools to the private sector in two phases. The target is to outsource 5,000 schools by the end of the third phase that started on April 3 this year, Raja adds.

A report prepared by Punjab education secretary Dr Allah Bakhsh Malik provides a breakdown of individuals and entities who have taken over the outsourced schools: 1,793 schools have gone to non-government or community organisations, 145 to retired government servants, 395 to private individuals, 196 to private school owners, 736 to school chains such as Beaconhouse and 1,010 to organisations that the PEF has been working with for years.

Schools under the PSSP are performing better. Officials say that enrolment has increased from 309,909 to 497,255, and as of May 2017, the number of teachers has also increased from 7,337 to 19,726. When a British magazine, The Economist, ran a special briefing on global trends in low-cost private schooling in August 2015, it included Punjab’s initiative in its coverage and called it a “new standard-bearer for market-based educational reform”.

Behind a sprawling industrial area, past large rice mills and signposts announcing Chand Bagh School, a private residential institution, a potholed track snakes towards a tiny village called Khana Rangra in Muridke tehsil of Sheikhupura district, about 20 kilometres north of Lahore. Four red and white buildings stand out amid mud houses in the village encircled by paddy fields. These buildings house schools built with the efforts of elected representatives of the area. None of these schools have ever operated at an optimum level.

This March, the government handed over one of them, a primary school, to a non-government organisation (NGO), Care Foundation.

Nisar Ahmed, a teacher at the outsourced school, has an old association with it. His father used to teach here when it was run by the government. “People in the village know who I am. It makes it easier to convince parents to send their children to school,” he says. His personal rapport with the villagers could be his chief qualification. Background interviews with teachers and officials suggest that the NGO-employed teachers are less qualified and poorly paid compared to their counterparts in government schools.

An education department official in the area confirms that. He recalls visiting an outsourced school to find out its security guard earns 8,000 rupees in monthly salary while its teachers receive 6,000 rupees a month. “These schools employ local teachers with passable educational credentials at extremely low salaries,” he says. Enrolment has certainly gone up but it will be incorrect to say that the quality of education has also improved, he adds.

Government teachers are also agitated. They are leaving their jobs in frustration, says Tariq Mahmood, convenor of the United Teachers Council, an alliance of teachers’ associations in Punjab. In April 2015, the council mobilised hundreds of teachers from across Punjab for a sit-in protest in front of the Punjab Assembly building in Lahore against the way the Punjab Education Road Map is being implemented. Their chief concern, according to Mahmood: the data that leads to the decision for outsourcing a government school “is all fudged”.

The chief minister’s monitoring team has 1,200 retired armed forces personnel. They have legal authority to visit any school unannounced. During their visit, they record all available or missing physical facilities such as classrooms, boundary walls, toilets, etc, on their government-provided tablet computers. They also note down the number of students in each class and the number of teachers on the payroll, especially marking those who are absent. Every month, third party firms conduct an audit of the data to check its authenticity. On paper, this digitised, regularly audited data collection appears flawless. In practice, it is not.

In 2016, Wilson Center, an American government-funded policy forum based in Washington DC, commissioned a report. Titled Pakistan’s Education Crises: The Real Story, it points out that the “the pressure for results from Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif is so intense that it is backfiring”. The report quotes a senior official describing Sharif’s work ethics as a “regime of fear”. “A district education official under that much pressure is bound to invent some numbers,” the report notes.

Senior education department officials and provincial ministers privately understand problems with the data but Sharif has been uncompromising, says Mahmood. The protest the teachers launched more than two years ago fizzled out after he and some other leaders of the council were arrested and put in jail for some days. But more protests are in the offing, he warns.

Punjab education secretary Malik, who has also worked as the PEF’s managing director in the past, acknowledges that the roadmap gives teachers no benefit of the doubt. “Government school teachers realise that they have to perform; otherwise, the schools they are teaching at will be outsourced,” he says. Government teachers, however, cannot improve their performance as long as they are forced to do additional duties – such as immunising children, conducting elections and taking census, says Abbas Rashid, one of the founders of the Society for the Advancement of Education (SAHE), a Lahore-based collective of academics and concerned citizens.

He also points to a major flaw in Punjab’s education roadmap: government schools are being handed over to the private sector without assessing its capacity. Without the assessment, he says, the government sets a low baseline for the success of the handover, focusing on quantity rather than quality. This low baseline means privately-run schools only need to improve enrolment and discipline to be successful, he says.

He offers another solution: “Giving government teachers a career path is one way of motivating them to work for improving the quality of education.”

This was originally published in the Herald's September 2017 issue under the title "The learning curve". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.