The change in Mohammad Ismail’s life has been swift. Earlier this year, he moved from being a student at a private school to studying at a government one, just within a few weeks.
A fifth-grade student, he is enrolled at a government primary school near his house in Peshawar’s Civil Quarters area. His widowed mother says she has put him in the government school because education there is free.
She is struggling to put food on the table for her three daughters and two sons, both of whom alternately drive an old auto rickshaw in their spare time to make ends meet. As soon as Ismail gets back home from school, he quickly eats lunch and gets out on the streets with his rickshaw, looking for passengers, still wearing his grey school uniform and blue cap with a red star on the front. His elder brother drives the vehicle in the morning before going to study at a government college.
Government institutions are the only option for poor children such as Ismail to get an education, says a former official of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa education department, who currently works with a foreign development consultancy in Peshawar. The parents of a large majority of children enrolled in government schools are daily wage labourers, poor farmers and landless farmhands, he says. No one who can spare money to pay for private education sends their children to government schools, he adds.
Ismail’s migration to a government school, however, was part of an unprecedented trend witnessed across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recently.
Parents have been approaching the government repeatedly with complaints against private schools, but the authorities are unable to do anything.
In late 2015, senior officials of the provincial education department started receiving informal reports that a large number of students were leaving private schools and joining government ones. They wrote letters to their field staff in districts to confirm those reports and compile data on the migrating students.
What the field staff discovered was surprising: 34,000 private school students had joined government schools in different parts of the province in the 2015-2016 academic year. Officials were quick to take credit. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which heads the coalition government in the province, has long been claiming to have immensely uplifted the sector.
Afzal Latif was the secretary of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa education department until recently. When he received the school migration data, he decided to engage Adam Smith International, a London-based development firm working with the provincial government on a number of British-funded projects, to find out the reasons behind it. The company carried out a sample survey in 10 districts earlier this year.
The findings were far from flattering for the provincial administration. The survey, which concluded in May 2016, revealed that 50 per cent of the students who had left private schools came from poor families. Their parents were not in a position to pay their fee any more. “ … [H]ouseholds said that it had become too expensive for them to continue sending their child to private schools,” stated the survey.
Another 28 per cent of the parents surveyed believed that the quality or standard of private schools was low due to which they had enrolled their sons/daughters in government schools. The reason for changing schools even in this case is not because of an improved quality or standard of education at government schools.
The remaining 22 per cent of parents shifted their children out of private schools for reasons including: opposition to co-education (four per cent), distance between their home and school (three per cent), children being weak in studies (four per cent), absence of value for money (three per cent) and inadequate infrastructure/basic facilities (two per cent).
These issues underscore the state of private schooling in the province, more than they highlight the improved standards of government schooling.
There are around 7,000 private schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The total number of students in these schools is 1.71 million — 1.18 million boys and 0.53 million girls. Out of these, 183,412 are studying in primary schools; 447,935 in middle schools; 722,524 in high schools and 359,541 in higher secondary schools, according to statistics provided by the education department for the academic year of 2015-2016.
Yet, there exists no strong law for an effective regulation of this massive sector, say many senior officials at the education department. Parents have been approaching the government repeatedly with complaints against private schools, but the authorities are unable to do anything, they add.
The law that regulates private schools – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Registration and Functioning of Private Educational Institutions Ordinance, 2001 – is seen by educationists and officials as weak and flawed. It provides for little more than the setting up of regulatory authorities with the same territorial jurisdiction as the seven examination boards in the province.
One of the major problems at government primary schools in the province – numbering around 23,000 – is the unavailability of teachers.
The ordinance is silent on many issues: it does not specify fee structure; it does not describe the criteria to put schools under various categories such as elite schools, model schools, etc, and it does not mention the qualification and salaries of the teachers.
The previous provincial administration started drafting a new law to address these gaps about six years ago. It is yet to be passed by the provincial assembly.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, according to official data, has spent 18 billion rupees over the last three years on providing boundary walls, electricity, drinking water and toilets in government schools. Muhammad Rafiq Khattak, Director of the KP Elementary and Secondary Education Department, says an additional four billion rupees will be spent on providing these facilities in 2016-2017. “We hope that no facility will be missing at a government school after a couple of years,” he says.
The government school buildings, as a result, are far better than those of many private schools. Teachers at government schools are also better paid compared to those in private ones.
Yet, parents prefer sending their children to private schools, says a Peshawar-based educationist who was working on an important position in the education department until recently. Even government teachers enroll their children in private schools, he says.
One of the major problems at government primary schools in the province – numbering around 23,000 – is the unavailability of teachers who, as per official policy, should teach all subjects in English. How will the teachers – appointed over two decades ago – learn to teach in English, when they have attended no college or university in their own student days, asks the educationist.
Khattak says teacher training is a government priority. His department has spent 2.2 billion rupees in the last three years to train teachers, he says. A memorandum of understanding has also been signed with the British Council to train 85,000 primary school teachers in English in the next three years — at a cost of 800 million rupees, he adds.
Teachers not showing up for work is another problem that government schools face. With a British grant, the government has set up an independent monitoring unit to ensure the presence of teachers at schools, among other things. And that has improved the situation to some extent, says the educationist.
The unit, however, is a temporary project. How the government will ensure the continuity of its operations is anyone’s guess.
Khattak argues the government has a comprehensive education sector reform programme to address such problems. The programme targets four areas for improvement: access to schools, quality of education, governance of schools and gender equity in enrolment.
The government, he says, has set up 1,400 community schools in far-off areas. It is also establishing smart schools (housed in containers) to save time required for setting up bricks-and-mortar schools. Over two billion rupees have been allocated for smart schools in the provincial budget for 2016-2017, he adds. These initiatives will certainly improve access to education. Improving and measuring the quality of education is another ball game. Once the quality improves, measuring it will be easy though. Better education at government schools must lead to a student migration bigger than the one in 2015-2016 — and one that takes places not out of necessity, but out of choice.
This article was originally published in the Herald's November 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a journalist and works for daily Dawn.