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Making schools work

Public Sector Schools July: It has been drilled into our heads that public sector schools do not work and cannot work. They do not work part is well established, empirically and statistically as well. Though in some recent research that we have conducted we have found public schools, albeit in an overall system that does not work and is quite poor, that does work and work well, their numbers are very small and so cannot really affect the overall averages.
To take an example, if we do find a few hundred public schools that work well in the overall public school system in the Punjab, which has some 50,000 to 60,000 odd schools, it will have no effect on the overall system. So, it is granted that the public school system does not work well. But the latter part that goes on from there to say that a public school system cannot work is of course a huge jump and a naturalistic fallacy, as Hume would call it. Simply put, you cannot go from an 'is' to an 'ought' or 'must'. Public school system does not work well does not mean it cannot work well. The few hundred schools, from within the public school system that work, do show that public school systems, even when working against massive odds, can deliver decent quality education. So, how come when a few hundred schools can deliver decent quality, we are unable to generalise that over the entire or most of the school system? And, equally importantly, why is it that when we know that private, for profit as well as not-for-profit, systems can deliver quality, we are still unable to replicate some of their systems and methods in the public school system?

In a way, schools and schooling are not a very complex system to manage. It is true if we are talking of a population of 165 million people and a young population at that, we will have 70 - 75 million children in the school going age to worry about, and even at 1000 children to a school, we are talking of a good 70,000 -75,000 schools, but this is just a replication issue. A school is a pretty simple space. We have the infrastructure (building, facilities, books and teaching materials) to worry about, we need qualified teachers in the schools and we need students in the school. And that is about it. If we can get these three in one place, and have a system that not only ensures the presence of the three but also provides reasonable motivation, accountability and monitoring and evaluation, we have the makings of a decent school on our hands. The issues of curriculum are no doubt complicated, but these lie beyond the scope of what happens in a school. Similarly, teacher training and so on are huge issues, but again the systems for that are not confined to a school. If we focus, for a moment, on a school only and what makes it function well, the system there really comes down to the few things mentioned above. The real question then is why cannot we get even such a simple system working reasonably well in the public sector?

If we look at the teachers most of the survey and qualitative data that we have suggests that government teachers have more degrees, have more in-service training and have better salaries than most of the teachers working in the private and non-governmental schools (leaving the elite schools aside). The government usually insists on hiring graduates, and ones with additional degrees or certificates in education, government provides quite a bit of in-service training in the form of refresher courses and so on, and government salaries, for teachers, and other benefits are significantly more than what the private sector pays. But it is still the case that almost all of our surveys show that private school teachers, again by and large, perform better in terms of higher attendance's, better delivery of services and so on. It is true that many government schools do not have teachers posted and so on, but that is a separate issue that need not concern us anymore as we have already said that we are concerned about the working of schools where we have the basics already there.

There are many government schools that do not have a boundary wall, latrine facilities, running water, access to safe drinking water and so on. Many do not have buildings at all and many do not have books, blackboards and furniture and so on. Too many children sit on the floor or on mats and a lot of them out in the open, even in summer and/or winter months. If the delivery of schooling is difficult in those conditions, one can hardly blame the teachers, the students or the system. Providing these basic facilities, in all schools, should remain a government priority. There are plenty of public schools that have all of these facilities and still do not deliver decent education. This is, in some ways, a more important question.

Finally, though surveys have shown that parents do prefer to send their children to private schools over public ones, when they have a choice in terms of available supply and affordability, surveys also show that a) public schools that deliver decent education are usually full, b) these schools have sometimes even reversed the trend and attracted students from the surrounding areas even when private options have been available. It should be borne in mind that low-fee charging private schools might be better than dysfunctional public schools but they do not necessarily deliver a satisfactory quality of education. As soon as a public school starts delivering decent quality, people might and do prefer that school to more costly private ones.

So, for public schools that have the sanctioned strength of teachers, have the basic infrastructure facilities and have the books, blackboards and so on as well, why is delivery still poor? That, as the saying goes, is the question. And the answer is not difficult to find. Private for-profit and NGO schools give us the answer. It lies in the 'systems' that schools put in place to ensure quality delivery. By 'system' we mean something akin to what Ali Haider referred to in his 'purani jeans' song. The 'system' motivates teachers, it provides accountability for all people working in a school and it provides needed support systems for them. The teachers make daily teaching plans, these plans are discussed in peer groups, teacher feedback is discussed as well and the head-teacher provides both guidance as well as accountability through regular meetings and random inspections. A similar system of support is in place for the head-teacher as well. Fairly detailed outlines are kept of daily and weekly activity. These increase accountability as well as transparency. But more importantly, they structure the way in which support for teachers, when and where needed, can be organised. It is this system, more than anything else that distinguishes a well working public or private school from a dysfunctional public school.

And the question to ask here is: what is in this 'system' that cannot be created in the public sector? If private for-profit schools and school systems can do it, if not-for-profit schools and school systems can do it, why can the public sector schools not do it? In all of the above discussion ownership issue has not even arisen. So whether ownership is ultimately of the people (the state) or of an entrepreneur or a board or trust that should be a non-issue in the development of a system for ensuring quality education.

We come back to the place where we started from, but as the poet say, we get to know it for the first time. It is true the public system of education is still, despite the education sector reforms, in a pretty bad state, but it is also equally true that a) the responsibility for delivering primary and secondary education nonetheless is with the state, and more pertinently, b) it is completely incorrect and defeatist to think that public sector cannot deliver quality education. There cannot be a bigger lie than this. And if I was a conspiracy theorist I would say it is a conspiracy of the free-market fundamentalists and upper-middle-class apologists who have perpetrated this myth. Analytically, as well as empirically, it can easily be shown that delivery of quality education has to do, once the basics in terms of qualified teachers and infrastructure have been provided for, with developing systems that motivate the players involved, support them when and where needed and also hold them accountable in return. And the introduction of such systems has nothing to do with whether this is being done under private or public ownership or control. Given our needs for providing quality education to all the children across Pakistan, I hope the myth of public sector non-delivery can be destroyed quickly.

Dr Faisal Bari

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Updated: 14 Oct, 2014
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