Ahead of general elections later this year, the debate around education reform in Pakistan has taken center stage. The province of Punjab is moving ahead at breakneck speed to privatize government-run schools in a bid to raise standards and address fundamental challenges such as waning attendance. Civil society organizations such as Alif Ailaan have described the sector as an education emergency. To find out more about the challenges and possible solutions in this space, I spoke with Zohair Zaidi, Alif Ailaan’s head of research.
Joseph Dana: What is Pakistan’s “education emergency”?
Zohair Zaidi: According to the latest numbers published by the government, we have 22.6m children out of school, which means there are 22.6m children between the ages of five and 16 who are not going to school at the moment. And that’s a very basic and fundamental statistic. As we keep unpacking the education landscape in the country, you realize that access or children’s inability to attend school is only the starting point. There is also a problem with the quality of education that children receive.
JD: Do you see any innovation happening in the technology space to specifically address this problem? Or is this emergency more an issue of a lack of physical school buildings?
ZZ: That’s actually the tragedy here. For a long time in Pakistan, education has been seen as a brick-and-mortar problem. And that also has to do with the political economy around education. For example, a local legislator, when they’re under pressure to do something good for education, what they end up doing is constructing a new school. And when they construct a new school there are also tenders to be given away and political patronage networks kick in, and it becomes a sort of patron-client relationship that governs the political economy space in Pakistan. Over the last decade, there’s been remarkable improvements in infrastructure, but we have yet to see those improvements translate into what actually matters, which is the quality of education that children are getting.
More recently however, things are moving in an encouraging direction. I’ll give you an example. Education data has been a big problem in Pakistan over the years. We don’t really have access to timely and recent data. What different provincial governments have done starting in Punjab is the real-time monitoring of education across the province. They are collecting data using tablets and GPS tracking to determine exactly who is attending school. The data is real time and allows educators to create databases to address needs and evaluate success. There is a tangible movement towards more innovative technological means to help the situation, and I would say away from an exclusive focus on brick and mortar.
JD: What is the relationship between the private and public sectors in solving the problem of access to and quality of education?
ZZ: There are two kinds of relationships that the [provincial] governments manage. One is their engagement with technical donors and partners. For example in Punjab, the education reform program is a massive program supported by the British government’s Department for International Development and the World Bank. But it’s also important to say that’s only a very small portion of the budget put into education. So the public financing of education, in a large proportion, is done by the government.
The other side of this coin is with the private sector. There’s been an absolute mushrooming of growth in private schooling options for students in Pakistan over the last decade and a half. When you say “private schools”, the perception is usually these elite exclusive schools, but this is not really the case, maybe a very very small percent of the private school options. Since the government schooling system has failed so miserably at producing children with the skill sets needed to compete with other kids, we’ve seen a mushroom growth of low-cost private school systems. It’s a nominal fee, and the teachers are less qualified than the teachers you would get at a government school. In fact, maybe they’re paid less and are less qualified. But what you get as a parent is accountability. Because those schools run on the money you pay in fees, which makes them more accountable when you go and meet them. You can tell them, “I’m not happy with my child’s progress. I think my child is lacking here. He should work on this more”, and they’ll be more receptive to your feedback
JD: When you think about the question of inequality in Pakistan, how does the rise of these low-cost private schools affect concerns about inequality across society?
ZZ: We think these private schooling options further reinforce the patterns of inequality we see in our society. And any meaningful change we want to see can only be brought about by a mass-scale intervention by the state government schools. The public perception is that the government has abdicated its responsibility in regulating and overseeing the education space. As a result of this, parents feel they might as well spend the money to get their kids an education that is worth something when they graduate. But that’s only the parents who can afford to do so.
There’s a huge population of parents who cannot afford to pay the fees to those low-cost private schools, as nominal as they may be. They end up continuing to go to the same government schools or dropping out all together. So if you look at it through that lens, you have to say that in a lot of ways this over-reliance on the private sector reinforces certain trends of inequality.