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Why short-term remedies?

INSTEAD of experimenting, the government should take effective steps to address the poor state of education in the country. Merely declaring education a fundamental right in the 18th Amendment is not enough.

The Education Voucher Scheme is being introduced by the Punjab and Sindh governments for poor students living in slum-urban and rural areas with technical and financial assistance from the World Bank. So far, 167 schools in Punjab and 300 schools in Sindh have been established and the process of adding 700 more schools is under way in Sindh.

Under the project the Punjab and Sindh Education Foundations, semi-autonomous bodies, dole out specified subsidy amounts to a private entrepreneur for running private schools to provide free education to students. It is envisaged that the project could increase the choice of poor parents dissatisfied with public schools or facing a scarcity of schools in their area. It is hoped that by creating an environment of competition public schools will be forced to improve, though this is unlikely.

The impression after studying material on the project and talking to various people is that this is not a well-thought-out initiative. No proper need or demand assessment appears to have been carried out. The selection criteria do not ensure that the entrepreneur has some background in the field of education. Profit-making values in education involve risks and diminish its intrinsic worth.

Another lacuna is that there is no clear plan as to how this project would continue once project funding ceases. Project sustainability is a crucial element of planning, though it is another fact that hardly any project survives as soon as financial support stops. This situation raises some important questions about the fate of students enrolled in such schools once the project completes its lifecycle. Is it expected of parents to start paying fees if they find the school performance satisfactory? Or will the government continue to support these schools under a separate funding mechanism? Will funds of ill-performing public schools be diverted to these public-private partnership schools?

It is pertinent to refer here to a Lahore-based NGO’s Annual Status of Education Report Pakistan 2010. The report indicates a higher rate (25.3) of tuition for students of private schools as compared to those in government schools (9.7 per cent). Private schools tend to fleece parents under one pretext or another. At the time of the final decision regarding the future of those schools one hopes all these factors are taken into consideration and parents are not left to the mercy of the entrepreneurs.

With regard to the latter option, the parallel education system is already perpetuating chronic social, economic, cultural and political inequalities.

Therefore it is not a wise decision to add a new type of school to the list. This can aggravate the situation in the long run. As it has been observed, particularly in Sindh, many public-private partnership schools have been established in areas where public schools are available. Isn’t it a waste of resources?

Another concern is that the government has control over the funding of these schools. So what difference will it make in the end? There are apprehensions that the same issues, currently being faced by public schools, will creep into this system as well.

Since this scheme has been implemented in the US and elsewhere it will be good to heed the viewpoints of others on this score. Prof Michael W.

Apple argues in the book Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality that “vouchers and similar marketising policies change our very definition of democracy from ‘thick’ to ‘thin’ so that rather than it being a collective act it is simply replaced by consumption practices. Choice on a market becomes the ultimate sign of democracy rather than a fully participatory collective act in which one builds and rebuilds institutions. This has crucial implications for the future of public institutions in the long run and constitutes a fundamental attack on the public sphere”.

Democracy is in its nascent phase in Pakistan and it is highly important that all new donor-driven schemes should be carefully examined in terms of their impact. Amidst the cry that market forces are more efficient and committed to their cause than are governments, one should allow institutions to be taken over by those forces whose prime agenda is to promote the ethos of privatisation and profit-making.

It is worth it to analyse how the situation has turned in favour of private schools in urban cities where education is a commonly advertised product. Over time people have lost trust and confidence in the public sector and strangely those parents who could afford the fee exercised their choice and left the rest to suffer.

Unfortunately, time and again, various research studies conducted in the country have shown that education standards are approaching their lowest ebb in public-sector schools. State schools cater to a large proportion of the population that fall in the medium- or low-income category. So if education is free there is still the opportunity cost of time, especially for children engaged in income-generation activities. Thus, it is a loss of time and money for them.

Meanwhile, elite private schools in the country can be seen as clear discrimination against the majority of poor parents whose children are enrolled in government schools. The government cannot shy away from its constitutional responsibility and launch short-term remedies for a small number of poor people. It must work on drastically revamping the education sector as a whole.

The writer works for an international education organisation in Pakistan.

(Originally published in Daily Dawn.)

 

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Squandered funds

Squandered funds

Asghar Soomro

THE idea of community participation in education has now evolved from parent-teacher associations (PTAs) and parent-teacher committees (PTCs) in some areas, into school management committees (SMCs).

But despite this evolution, over the decades positive evidence of the impact of community participation on schools’ overall performance is few and far between as actual participation is nominal in most cases.

In Sindh the SMCs are one among major reforms being undertaken by the Sindh Education Reform Programme (SERP). SMCs are formed at each school level comprising parents and local community members with a mandate to contribute to the betterment of schools from the academic, administrative and physical environment aspects.

The SMCs’ specific responsibilities include providing complementary support to schools, assisting in raising and sustaining learning outcomes of students, protecting and enhancing school assets, monitoring classroom performance and teacher attendance and increasing and sustaining enrolment and reducing drop-out rates etc.

Moreover, the SMCs formed at the primary, middle and secondary and higher secondary school levels receive a fixed amount of funds on an annual basis from the Sindh government. Primary schools receive Rs22,000, middle schools Rs50,000 and secondary and higher secondary schools Rs100,000.

During the last fiscal year the Sindh government’s education and literacy department spent Rs1.2bn with a view to activate and revitalise the SMCs.

Since their inception the committees are facing various problems, from the selection of executive committee members to the release and proper utilisation of funds. Often the SMC chairman is recommended by the local ‘influential’ and is not accountable to its members in particular and the community in general.

General bodies of SMCs remain dormant due to lack of a democratic process. More worrying is the fact that in many instances women have been ignored under one pretext or another, reinforcing patriarchal norms and lessening women’s role as parents. In most cases even SMCs overseeing girls’ schools are headed by male members.

A recent survey released by the NGO Lead Pakistan lends credence to the above-mentioned observations. The survey was conducted with financial support from UKaid under the Advocacy and Innovation Funds for Education in Pakistan project. The survey was undertaken in two districts of Sindh, Sukkur and Khairpur, involving 40 schools — 65pc primary, 20pc middle and 15pc high schools.

The purpose of the survey was to gauge the effectiveness and efficacy of governance through the SMCs and school grants and propose remedial actions accordingly.

The findings reveal that only 8pc SMCs of girls’ primary schools, none at the girls’ middle schools and 33pc at girls’ high schools in Khairpur district were headed by female members while in Sukkur 31pc primary, 25pc middle and no high schools were headed by females.

Instead of challenging these biases and prejudices against women the education authorities silently accept them as established norms. One wonders, if women can become councillors from rural areas why can’t they take the reins of SMCs?

Further, the findings show a significant gap between the number of enrolled students and attendance of students. Students’ attendance in Sukkur and Khairpur was 47pc and 60pc respectively. This indicates a high level of enrolled/ registered students’ absenteeism. The survey also throws up the issue of double enrolment — students simultaneously enrolled in government schools and private or NGO-run schools.

So far, 42,000 SMCs have been established across primary schools in the province and more than 90pc are considered ‘active’, but the definition of active and inactive SMCs is unclear and confusing.

The findings on this score indicate some interesting facts; 90pc SMCs in Sukkur and 100pc in Khairpur considered active show funds’ utilisation at 20pc and 30pc respectively. The remaining SMCs have not utilised the funds on development activities of the schools and the funds were lying idle.

Further, as regards the administrative matters of SMCs (such as signing cheques, separate bank accounts, updating financial accounts etc), the activity recorded is at 75pc and above for both districts. However, its effectiveness in terms of contribution in kind, curriculum and policy formulation, does not match the claimed achievements by SMCs in the past three years.

A clear benchmark needs to be set so that the efficiency and efficacy of SMCs may be measured in a proper manner in future research studies.

Statistics on the condition of schools at the provincial level continue to paint a dismal picture. Approximately 10,000 schools are shelter-less while a large number of other schools are without basic facilities such as toilets, drinking water, electricity and playgrounds etc.

Moreover, 6,644 school buildings are considered dangerous by the education department. The quality of learning is so low that drop-out rates continue to be high and the transition of students from primary to secondary level is very low; hence the situation presents a big challenge.

The SMCs’ capacity is insufficient to tackle such gigantic tasks and one cannot find good examples where schools have significantly improved as a direct result of SMCs’ intervention.

The education department must think of innovative and creative ways to put life into these bodies and correct its priorities keeping ground realities in view. Without doing this it is another opportunity for vested interests to squander public money.

The writer is an adviser at the Social Policy and Development Centre, Karachi.

soomro_211@hotmail.com

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100 schools closed

100 schools closed

GOVERNMENT officials and other stakeholders seem to lack sincerity and commitment to the cause of promotion of education in Pakistan. Wrong policy decisions and inefficiency makes the situation further worse.

It has been learned that the Sindh Education Foundation has closed 100 schools established under its Promoting Private Schooling in Rural Sindh (PPRS) Project without any prior notice to the owners of these schools generally known as ‘entrepreneurs’.

The reason behind closure of these schools is that the schools were established in violation of the criterion which was that no school should be set up within the radius of 1.5km of government schools. Now all these are declared in close proximity of government schools.

Interestingly, agreements were made with entrepreneurs after the third party validation. It clearly exposes credibility and reliability of such exercises.

As a result of this decision, approximately 18,000 students and 300 schools will be affected along with 100 entrepreneurs.

As the entrepreneurs have not received a budget for nine months, teachers from these schools are still waiting for their salaries.

The entrepreneurs are planning to launch agitation against the decision. Ultimately, students and parents will suffer.

This is not a well-thought-out initiative. No proper need or demand assessment appears to have been carried out. The selection criteria do not ensure that the entrepreneur has some background in the field.

Another lacuna is that there is no clear-cut plan as to how this project would continue.

The government of Sindh should now revisit the entire project with all relevant stakeholders to find long-term solutions to problems of education without being under pressure of donor agencies. Otherwise, it will be too late to do anything.

ASGHAR SOOMRO Karachi

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