On listening to the federal minister for education in meetings and at events, one gets the sense that he understands the fundamental issues facing the education system in Pakistan. His team in the ministry is also very experienced and committed to setting a policy direction and delivering on an education improvement plan for the country.
Individuals and organisations working towards educational development in Pakistan hope a positive outcome from the education policy roadmap of the current government. However, they are also aware that governments in the past have not failed on giving good policy documents. For instance, Pakistan out-performed other nations in presenting roadmaps for MDGs in 2000 and SDGs in 2015. But as far as successful implementation for achieving these global and national goals is concerned, it has been a valley of death for different policy frameworks and action plans.
The four pillars of the new policy framework: out-of-school children, quality education, skill development and uniform standards across the country respond well to the fundamentals of system improvement. After chalking out policy roadmaps and designing detailed implementation strategies with budgeted action plans, the government’s education team will have to accelerate progress that reflects in better learning outcomes of all students. People who hope for change want to see solid actions and positive results.
One undeniable fact regarding the improvement of the education system in Pakistan is the enormity of the task. The large number of reported out-of-school children and the dismal learning outcomes of in-school children need equal and urgent attention. The education minister’s team will need to avoid a sporadic, disjointed and reactive response. They will have to think beyond quick fixes and devise comprehensive, efficient and effective solutions that work in different parts of the country and with different groups of children. Before diving off the ledge, a serious review of previous policy roadmaps is crucial to identify promising initiatives and to fix the missing links. Otherwise, the translation of vision into reality may face the same fate as that of other well-intended efforts in the past.
New policy roadmaps should not mean discrediting everything from the past. The new roadmap should rather build upon what has already worked well. One such positive example is the ongoing education sector reform programmes of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments, in partnership with the government of the United Kingdom.
Significant budgetary and technical support for system improvement has been utilised for comprehensive system reform programmes. Some miles have already been covered through establishing independent school monitoring systems in both provinces, improved infrastructure and facilities in Punjab and the teacher induction programme in KP. Attention and effort are required to accelerate progress on these and other similarly effective programmes. Equal attention is also needed to identify ineffective programmes and energise or discontinue them – depending upon their significance, need and relevance to the quality of learning at the school level.
The government’s education team can move the needle in a positive direction only by ensuring the basic elements of quality of learning in schools. In 2016, the federal government developed the Minimum Standards for Quality Education (MSQE). However, mere development and dissemination of standards is not enough, especially in the absence of accessible pathways with clear milestones and proactive control by all stakeholders.
One clearly missing element in the MSQE is any consideration for quality in governance. The administrative heads of education departments at national and provincial levels get placed on these positions without tenure postings, and mostly for very short durations. They may also come to lead this specialised work of developing future generations of the country with a rather general background and experience, sometimes as irrelevant as that of leading the livestock or forest departments.
For any serious effort to improve the quality of education, the new policy framework should prioritise governance reforms. These reforms should create the possibility for the best and brightest from within the education sector to take up the top managerial responsibilities in education departments with a clearly laid-out accountability structure and for a minimum tenure.
Similarly, mechanisms for reforms should not be confined to in-country or foreign exposure visits and lucrative training programmes for middle and senior managers in education departments. Unfortunately, these two features top the list of education governance reform initiatives designed with indigenous or foreign funds. These universally attractive but generally fruitless solutions for governance should be given more thought for the relevance of the proposed activity and the accountability of participants for some tangible outcome.
Governance reforms will need attention and time from policy and decision makers at the national and provincial levels. For a really consultative reform process, staff in management and administration positions of education departments will also need to be closely involved. Those of us who work with the education departments of different governments in Pakistan observe the way ministers, secretaries and their secretarial staff are under excessive demand to appear in events and meetings of foreign aid programmes and in educational institutions. This situation can be avoided and improved with better utilisation of the precious time of government functionaries.
Development partners and education departments should coordinate and hold joint thematic events instead of parallel events happening in different 3-5 start hotels or even different halls of the same hotels. Through an administrative order, one immediate step should be taken: all launch, close-out, dissemination of achievements, findings or policy seminars of education projects should be held in public colleges and schools of the respective cities in the afternoons or evenings. Identification of venue should be done in consultation with the relevant education office and rotated among different institutions, prioritising those requiring attention of authorities.
In this way, the minister and the donors will get to see the real schools they are working for and money will also be saved which can be donated to the school.
This small step may have symbolic significance for grounding policy frameworks, quality standards and development initiatives into the reality of schools. This exposure may also be unique for local politicians and bureaucrats whose children study in private schools. Above all, it will demonstrate the government’s priority for bringing schools to the centre of the education reform and improvement effort.
The writer is an education adviser at the Aga Khan Foundation Pakistan.