Here’s the truth: Education is the most important element related to a country’s progress and development. It also can be the biggest detriment.
In the past few months, Pakistan has seen protests emanating from different sectors of society. Apart from the political and religious ones, the only civic movement that has attracted any real attention has been related to the fee structure for private schools.
No, the concept of private schooling is not new. In 1947, the year of independence from British India, the state promised to provide universal primary education to its children with the support of “other actors” who can participate and realise its importance. It justified the need for “extra state actors” citing lack of resources.
But mere education is not enough. The quality of education is directly linked to the quality of human resources.
And quality education is the prime responsibility of the government, according to Article 25-A of the Constitution. “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”
The government has declared Education for All (EFA) a prime responsibility. This global movement led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (USESCO) had an ambitious goal of meeting learning needs of children, youth and adults by 2015. Pakistan also was a signatory to international commitments like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), signed by the world leaders in 2000, and Dakar Framework of Action for Education for All, which envisioned free and compulsory primary education to all children. That same year, participants of the latter reaffirmed their commitment to achieving EFA by 2015.
However, these issues never really have been a priority as our government shamelessly spends only about 2.1 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product on education. And after failing to achieve the MDGs, it was easier to change to name of these pursuits to “Sustainable Development Goals.”
By allowing the deterioration of education in public schools, including absent teachers and ghost schools, the government has left plenty of room for private schools to enter the market.
Several annual reports (PSLM 2013-14, NEC 2005, ASER 2015) state that since 2002, enrolment in private schools has increased from 24 per cent to 40 per cent. Of the 225,711 schools in Pakistan, 66,089 are private schools; meaning 71 per cent are government schools that 61 per cent of children attend. Out of 1,406,090 teachers in Pakistan, 680,908 teach in private schools.
But with more than four million children out-of-school – a maddening statistic that makes Pakistan third in the world — the expanding private sector has failed to bridge the gap.
If divided into subcategories, our private schools look like this:
- Religious (Madrassas)
- Non Formal (Academies/Tuition Centres)
Ironically, the first three types — without government moderation — have become profit-making factories. They invest in education for private gain without a nod to social gain. Elite and missionary schools are trusted, by and large, because of the quality of education they are able to provide. But the amount they charge surely affects the quality of life for families seeking the best of education possible for their children.
But truthfully, the practice of franchising education has stealthily become a major problem.
The idea behind franchise schools really is not that different from brokerages and clients when it comes to stock-market investments. The only true difference is a franchisor keeps advertising and franchisees keep investing. Naturally, this creates value, with the most valuable brand name rented for sometimes exorbitant amounts.
There is no harm in doing such business if it is for fast-moving consumer goods. But the bad part of this practice is that the “franchisees” with little or no experience or expertise in the realm of education are now in business – mostly for themselves.
Middle- and lower-middle class residents, a fast-disappearing segment within our borders, tend to send their children to these franchises in the name seeking quality education. They should know, though that assessment results show these franchises often provide inferior education than would standard private schools that charge fees more in line with these parents’ ability to pay.
Beware the “private school mafia,” schools with multiple heads of fee absorption. By offering a low fee for junior classes, these schools reel in parents and begin slapping on ludicrous mark-ups and other fees. Just to place their children here, parents have to pay an application fee, registration fee, security deposit, advanced monthly fee and annual charges. And the nibbling doesn’t end there. Parents really begin haemorrhaging money when told they must chip in, in addition to monthly fees, for flower day, art day, dance day, game day, movie day and recreation day. These thinly disguised activities are a means to keep a steady flow of money coming into these schools.
Fees for these schools range from Rs8,000/month to Rs20,000/month; average residing is around Rs12,000/month. This increment is on top of what parents must shell out for stationary, books, notebooks, uniforms, transportation and miscellaneous expenses.
Can you stand some more truth?
Many standard private schools may soon cease to flourish or even disappear. They are suffering because of these profit mongers.
The just-completed 19th session of the provincial assembly in Punjab passed a Private Education Regulatory Authority Bill to “cap” the fee structure of the “mafia, “which in return went on strike and ceased educational activities in the province. Unbelievably, the government has deferred implementation and is seeking negotiations.
While there is a dire need of a regulatory authority for the mafias, we must not allow it to kill standard private schools, which are the only impediment to the total commercialisation of education through these franchises.
The government already has failed miserably to implement standards for setting up a school.
From their buildings, their staff and the quality of their libraries and laboratories, low-fee — or street — private schools are worsening the current quality of education badly. Many of these schools rely upon assessment deception to stay in business – and they keep draining the pockets of the lower class.
Religious schools are doing what they are supposed to do. But some of them also are empowering gangs of extremists who will never fit into the boundaries of a decent society. Of these “students,” too many are intent upon creating mischief and glorifying terror upon “graduation.”
Coaching centres and academies largely “teach to the test, thus helping students deceive the assessment system by performing technically well on exams. Students earn degrees based on inflated scores, but they are constantly searching for jobs. Seldom have they been adequately equipped to really make a substantial difference on behalf of our country
And many associations in Pakistan claim to represent private schools.
As an owner of a private school, I have examined and scrutinised these associations. I am quite certain that none of these so-called representatives have done a thing to earn their keep. Truth be told, they are associations in name only; in reality they are power-hungry people who have come to “educational politics” for either money or for recognition. Many association leaders are barely aware of the private-sector issues we face, and the extent of their political involvement is largely dependent upon “tickers” and “clippings.”
What we have here is a national emergency!
We must demand that our government be accountable for provide a quality affordable education to its children. It must quit turning a blind eye to what the practice of “privatisation” of private schools is doing to our children and our glorious country.
In past three months the government of Punjab has franchised more than 900 schools within province into private hands. By its very nature, this is an unfortunate admission and acceptance of its own failure.
There is a dire need to strengthen the public education system by increasing GDP spending to at least four per cent. Since education funding is the responsibility of individual provinces, moving the needle from the present allocation of 2.1 per cent of GDP will require extraordinary efforts from the provincial and federal governments. To get there, provinces will need to increase education spending from 1.33 per cent of GDP to 3.2 per cent.
By raising investment and policies implementation within the public education sector – and paying more attention to the issues facing standard private schools we can begin to solve this national problem.
The government must do what is right for our children. Negotiating with “educational mafias” is outrageously irresponsible and sets a dangerous precedent. The time has come to stop the franchising movement. The time has come for the government to convene a summit to determine how to live up to its promises in the name of education. Failure to respond will bring about consequences that will alarmingly devalue and undermine our great nation’s destiny.
Although it was about an unpopular war, the late John Lennon sang nearly a half century ago of frustration with deceptive politicians and his concern for innocent victims. The title of his post-Beatles song as part of his album “Imagine” certainly is applicable in modern-day Pakistan about the topic just laid out before you.